Serbia has retained nine players from the Rio 2016 gold-medal winning team as it headlines what will be a tight men’s water polo competition at the Tatsumi Water Polo Centre, starting on Sunday, July 25.

With superstars Filip Filipovic and Andrija Prlainovic back in the mix, Serbia will be wanting to assert its authority early in the star-studded Group B that contains 2021 Olympic Qualification Tournament and FINA World League winner Montenegro, 2017 world champion Croatia, 2019 FINA World Championship silver medallist Spain, 2018 FINA World Cup silver medallist Australia and Kazakhstan.

Group A pits FINA World League silver medallist United States of America against nine-time champion Hungary, Greece and Italy, who battled out third and fourth place at the recent Super Final, and host Japan and Kazakhstan. Italy won medals at the last two Olympics, showing its pedigree.

The competition is broken into two groups of six with teams playing a round robin in their groups, followed by quarterfinals, semifinals and the all-important medal round, on August 8, the last day of the Olympic Games.

Group A

Greece claimed the bronze medal in the recent FINA World League Super Final in Tbilisi, Georgia and promises to play some excellent water polo in Tokyo. Captain Ioannis Fountoulis belied his age with an outstanding contribution of 13 goals. Relative youngsters who came up through the junior ranks where Greece won two world crowns — Konstantinos Gkiouvetsis and Alexandros Papanastasiou — are the future of this proud team.

Hungary would love to make 2020 Tokyo the venue for its 10th Olympic gold medal — a staggering statistic. Beijing 2008 gold medallists Denes Varga and Norbert Hosnyanszky have survived the golden era of Hungarian water polo and will be the inspiration for the new bunch of players. With Viktor Nagy in goal and Balasz Harai returning for another tilt, the leading four stars were all members of the successful 2013 world title under the coaching eye of the late Tibor Benedek, so winning championships is not new. Benedek knew how to score in Olympics, being the second highest scorer behind the great Manuel Estiarte (ESP). Hungary was fifth at Rio 2016, fourth at Gwangju 2019 and the silver medallist at home for the 2017 FINA World Championships.

Italy tailed off at the recent Super Final to finish fourth, but had the ignominy of playing without star centre forward Matteo Aicardi (sanctioned for a brutality foul in the semifinal). The fourth most experienced team in terms of age, Italy has captain Pietro Figlioli playing his fifth Olympics while Francesco Di Fulvio and Gonzalo Echinique are players to watch.

Japan is the smallest and probably one of the fastest teams and uses an unorthodox attacking style that relies on driving with less  emphasis on the centre-forward position. Scoring machine Yusuke Inaba likes to utilise every position and finishing top of the scorers’ list in the Super Final in Tbilisi, was no fluke. Don’t blink; you might miss something. Japan’s best result was fourth in 1912.

South Africa brings an African qualifier to the table for the first time since 1960 when South Africa finished ninth. The country has been a consistent performer in World and World League competition and has been plying its trade in European competitions pre-Covid. Veterans Donn Stewart, Devon Card and Nicholas Rodda could provide the impact necessary to match it with the stronger teams.

United States of America is the youngest team in the competition, yet has the honour of silver at the recent Super Final. Hannes Daube (20) was outstanding amid a blend of youth and experienced players still performing highly. Captain Jesse Smith (38) joins the legendary Tony Azevedo as the only players to attend five Olympic Games for USA. With so much youth and vigour, USA has all-round shooting skills.

Group B

Australia trained with USA in Hawaii pre-tournament after largely preparing in Australia. Captain Aaron Younger makes his third Olympic appearance after a stellar career in Europe, winning the last three LEN Champions League. Richie Campbell and Rhys Howden, both former captains, will play their fourth Olympics.

Croatia was the Olympic champion at London 2012 and lost out to Serbia in the Rio 2016 final. However, its presence in Tokyo was courtesy of probably the most thrilling match of the year — if not the century. At the Olympic Games Qualification Tournament in Rotterdam, Croatia downed Russia 25-24 in sudden-death penalties after levelling the match at 11-11 for the final berth at Tokyo. Russia came back to level the match and force the shootout with both teams missing an early goal before Russia stumbled with its 14th attempt. Croatia is the oldest team at an average age of 31 years 77 days and will be ably led by Andro Buslje and contains fellow 2012 gold medallists Maro Jokovic and Paulo Obradovic.

Kazakhstan beat Georgia in a penalty shootout and lost to Japan by two goals for sixth place at the Super Final. Srdjan Vuksanovich was the find of the tournament and his skills, and along with the effervescent post man Mikhail Ruday and Murat Shakenov, will be hoping for an excellent showing against such high-class opposition. Kazakhstan is returning after finishing 11th at London 2012.

Montenegro is the class team with the best credentials for 2021, having won the OGQT and the FINA World League Super Final earlier this month. With veteran Aleksandar Ivovic is sparkling form in Tbilisi, Georgia, winning the Most Valuable Player award, Montenegro is honed for a tilt at the title. Ivovic has more than 300 caps and 600 goals in the bag. The desire will be to go at least one better than the three successive losing bronze-medal play-offs at the last three editions. Outside shooter Drasko Brguljan and the capable Stefan Vidovic will make an impression.

Serbia is the reigning champion and a shake-out clash with Spain on the opening day should prove most informative. The Rio 2016 victory followed bronze medals in 2008 and 2012 as an independent nation. London 2012 gold medallists Filip Filipovic and Dusan Mandic will spearhead the nine players with a golden glow and with head coach Dejan Savic looking for more glory, Serbia will be one of the teams to beat.

Spain has as many wins as losses at the Olympics (52) alongside seven draws. Fourth at Sydney 2000 was the best result since the 1996 triumph so the best pointer for this year is its second place at the FINA World Championships in Gwangju two years ago. Captain Felipe Perrone will join the five-Olympic club and be one of many elder statesmen fast approaching 40 years of age. Blai Mallarach and Roger Tahull should also impress.

Day 1 Schedule
Match 1, 10:00, Group A, SOUTH AFRICA ITALY
Match 2, 11:30, Group A, HUNGARY GREECE
Match 4, 15:30, Group B, AUSTRALIA MONTENEGRO
Match 5, 18:20, Group B, SERBIA SPAIN
Match 6, 19:50, Group B, CROATIA KAZAKHSTAN