Greece attained its finest result at an Olympic Games last year, standing second only to Serbia, and the successes were achieved with a blend of experience and youth. One of those rising stars is Alexandros Papanastasiou, who plays his club water polo in Croatia and is starting to amass a cupboard full of medals.
It was Kuwait City, 2019 and the last major FINA water polo event pre-pandemic.
It was the semifinal of the FINA World Water Polo Championships for junior men and Greece was playing Croatia for the right to battle for gold.
Alexandros Papanastasiou and Konstantinos Gkiouvetsis provided a masterclass of shooting, completely demoralising the Croats, leading 4-2 at the quarter, 8-5 at halftime and a stunning 13-5 by the final break and winning 15-6. While Gkiouvetsis was picking off the goals from the left side of the pool and an absolute rocket from near halfway in his five-goal haul, Papanastasiou was chiming in with four more as spectators were left in no doubt as to who was going to finish with gold. Greece achieved this in a completely different encounter the following day, downing Serbia 6-4. Papanastasiou was marked out of the scoring while Gkiouvetsis managed two, with a lob from the top and a penalty strike.
Both of these youngsters morphed into the senior squad and are still feeling their way at the elite level and will be vital cogs in Greece’s charge to maintain the momentum from Olympic silver in Tokyo into possibly something better in Budapest.
Back in Kuwait, Papanastasiou was relishing the tournament and in the first group match he slammed in six goals against Australia in a 16-9 outing and the opening three goals past the New Zealand goalkeeper before he was reined in.
Fast forward to Tokyo 2020 and it was Gkiouvetsis and Papanastasiou who brought the final match level with consecutive goals for 7-7 midway through the second quarter. Serbia, of course, won the match 13-10, but the youngsters had tasted success on the biggest stage of all.
Looking back 21 years, I was lucky enough to be asked to “train” with the Greek national team in Athens, before Papanastasiou was born. Kostas Loudis took me to the former king’s swimming complex near the old Olympic stadium and there I chatted to another Papanastasiou — Anastasios — Alex’s father.
The old warhorse was in his final throes of international competition, which included four consecutive Olympic Games from 1984. I was lucky enough to witness his centre-forward play at the Atlanta Olympics when Greece achieved its highest ranking of sixth.
So how does Tasos the father respond to Alex the son grasping a silver medal in his first appearance at an Olympic Games?
“He is very proud of me. We achieved something all the prior generations of water polo in Greece dreamed of and we really felt their happiness and their support during these Games. I can confidently say he was even happier than me, as he always is when I win something. His reactions are truly priceless and I don’t know if they can fit into words.
Family ties: Alex with father Tasos, sister Alina Papanastasiou and mother Maria Plivouri (right).
“My father was the one who introduced me to the sport and he was the one who helped me during any difficulties I may have had in the beginning. He has given me plenty of advice throughout my career, so far. His advice concerned the technical as much as the mental part. He learnt many lessons during his career and I had the chance to learn them too, without first making the mistakes he had to make.”
Alex is playing for Jug Dubrovnik this year. “We just won the Croatian championship and all we have left for this club season is the Final 8 of the Champions League.
“We know, as a national team, that after the Olympics the expectations are really high. Of course, we set them there with our performances. Even though the preparation time is a bit limited for us, we will do everything we can to be ready and win another medal as that’s what we are aiming for.
What is the feeling within the team after silver last year?
“Of course, we are extremely happy, but we also believe that this could be just the beginning of a series of good results for our team. We are confident and there is motivation in the team to push ourselves towards these results. Like I said, we set the bar high and now we have to reach it again and again.”
Scoring Goals asked Alex how playing in another country has shaped his water polo career.
“This step I took to move to Dubrovnik at a really young age helped me a lot as a player. Here I had the best conditions to work and improve myself in every aspect while playing at the highest possible level. I feel like I am progressing more and more each year and I’m really satisfied by that. However, I think there are many things I have yet to fix to reach my maximum capability as a player. And, of course, I continue working every day towards that goal.”
For the record, Alex has won silver at the 2020 Olympics, bronze at the 2020 FINA World League Super Final, two world junior men’s gold medals (2017 and 2019) and gold at the 2018 European Youth Championships.