Europe’s leading men’s nations front for the final of the European leg of the FINA Water Polo World League in Podgorica, Montenegro that starts Thursday. The match-ups will prove who is the best just weeks from the 19th FINA World Championships in Budapest.
The cut-throat nature of the competition means that if you lose on day one, you can’t hope to qualify for the FINA Water Polo World League Super Final in Strasbourg, France from 23-29 July. The best you can hope for is possibly fifth place and three strong matches in the eight-team event in the lead-up to the FINA World Championships in the Hungarian capital.
Let’s look at how the first day shapes up and you can see why this competition could be compared to the second week of the FINA World Championships, as many of these teams will be hoping for that scenario.
In the first match on Thursday, Olympic bronze medallist Hungary plays Spain, a team in Tokyo last year who looked a certainty for a medal before it lost 9-5 to Hungary at the final hurdle and missed the walk to the podium. Watch out for youngster Vendel Vigvari (HUN) and five-time Olympian Felipe Perrone (ESP).
Match two couples France with host Montenegro and although the latter placed seventh in that penalty shootout victory over Italy at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, France was a non-starter at the Olympics. Montenegro will be highly motivated to make sure of victory in front of a home crowd.
However, France is the host in Strasbourg so will be competing and just three teams from Podgorica will join it against the top four from outside Europe — the United States of America, Australia, Canada and Brazil. Look out for France’s livewire Thomas Vernoux and Montenegro’s Aleksa Ukropina.
Match three sees perennial champion Serbia clash with Greece in a rematch of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic gold-medal final where the Serbs finished ahead 13-10. That is the second rematch of the Olympic medals, showing just how tough it will be to advance here. All eyes will be on left-hander Dusan Mandic (SRB) and veteran scorer Ioannis Fountoulis (GRE).
Croatia, who lost out to Hungary 15-11 in the Tokyo quarterfinals, will take on reigning world champion Italy in the fourth encounter. Italy, a four-goal loser to Serbia in the quarterfinals, went home in an unmemorable eighth place from Tokyo.
Shift forward nine months and all teams have gone through a revitalising process and will bring plenty of untapped talent, alongside the veterans.
Thursday’s winners will progress to Friday’s semifinals where the winners will gain automatic elevation to the Super Final and the losers will have to battle for the third qualifying spot in the bronze-medal match on Saturday.
However, that being said, France could put a spanner in the works and win through the early matches, upsetting the predictions. Whatever the consequence, three teams plus France will be setting their sights in Strasbourg come Saturday night.
It will be a busy year for the European teams with this final series, Budapest 2022 and the Super Final ahead of the European Championships in Split (CRO) in August-September.
I remember back in 2014 when Serbian head coach Dejan Savic told me that he could not lift his team three times in the one year, so he took a junior team to Almaty in Kazakhstan to contest the World Cup after winning European and World League titles that year. The result in Almaty? A third gold medal for the year! Maybe that could be a possibility again this year?
Catch all the action on FINA's YouTube channel.