The past year has seen a near quantum shifting of power and status for many men’s water polo nations as they come to terms with mass retirements following Tokyo 2020 and the fast turnaround for Paris 2024. Scoring Goals takes a look at how 2022 evolved for the leading nations.
In a Euro-centric 2022, it was a huge year. It came after the delayed 2020 Olympic Games and in many cases, retirements coming a year later than planned, disrupting the next quadrennium.
We had the FINA World League, FINA World Championships and the European Championships all in one year. Three times European nations had to peak. Some chose which ones to peak as three times is deemed one too many.
The last team to win all three major events was Serbia in 2014, taking World League, World Championship and World Cup crowns. A youthful team filled the Serbian roster as head coach Dejan Savic said at the time that the same team could not peak three times. He was probably right and the youngsters provided the icing on the cake as other nations thought it a possibility.
If there has to be a winner for the year, you could not look past Spain (Captain Felipe Perrone above), which finished fourth in Tokyo and put that disappointment behind it to claim the only triple podium — David Martin’s team placing third in the World League, first in the Worlds and third at the Europeans.
On winning the gold medal in Budapest, Martin (Main picture and above) said: “Finally, we did it. We played very well and deserved this win. That was a great tournament with some quality teams like Greece, Italy, Hungary. I am very proud of my players, and now there is nothing more to do. All my players had a dream to win this championship. They wanted to take revenge for the previous final and fortunately we just did that.”
Alessandro Campagna (above), Italy's long-time head coach, managed to get his team rebound from seventh in Tokyo to win the World League, take silver in the Worlds in a penalty shootout loss and fourth in Split. Campagna was equally effusive after the Budapest final: “It was an amazing match. I am lucky to live this match as a coach. I cannot say any bad words to my players. They gave 100 per cent. They put strength into the water, even if Spain played better in the first two quarters. I believed that we could come back. I believed in it, even if we were very much down. Anyway, congrats to Spain and my players, too.”
Greece targeted the Worlds after second in Tokyo, taking home bronze. Fifth was its lot in Split. In Budapest, head coach Theodoros Vlachos (above) was ecstatic after winning bronze: “We had an almost perfect game. I think we deserved to win today and have left Budapest with a smile on our faces. Winning a medal in a championship is a really great thing. Before this tournament I was expecting to fight for the medal, and my players believed in themselves and now the podium is a fact, no longer just an expectation.”
Croatia had its eyes firmly on the European titles at home and Ivica Tucak did his nation proud in steering the team to the gold medal in front of an adoring capacity crowd. Croatia was fifth in Tokyo and warmed up for Split with a creditable fourth in Budapest.
After beating Hungary for European gold, Tucak (above) said: “It was a very hard game, Hungary was a very strong opponent. But this one was an experience of a lifetime, and this is something I never want to forget. I will not forget our whole journey to the final game, our semifinal against Italy and, of course, the last match here against Hungary. This is something special.”
With new coach Zsolt Varga (pictured in his playing days as a 2000 Olympic champion) propelling Hungary following the Worlds, second place in Split was a wonderful return and helped restore some pride in the men’s programme.
Varga said after the Split final: “We need to see the whole picture to understand what just happened to us. In that few weeks since we are working together, we made an amazing job. During this European Championship we performed very good, sometimes we made kind of miracles. I owe big thank to my players for this amazing experience, I’m really proud of them. I think the new players who’ve just started working with us, have become really useful members right away.”
Of the non-Europeans, United States of America was the best with a silver medal at the World League Super Final, following sixth in Tokyo.
The likes of Montenegro, Australia, Georgia, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Germany and Kazakhstan will have to toughen up to make their presences felt ahead of Paris 2024.
2022 Coaching Departures
There were two big shocks in the coaching departments this year with Hungary’s head coach Tamas Marcz not surviving the FINA World Championships wash-up and Serbia’s Dejan Savic tendering his resignation this week after a disastrous ninth placing at the recent European Championships.
For 2000 Olympic champion Marcz, the target was essentially a top-two finish in Budapest to secure his role, which he held since January 2017, taking over from the then ill Tibor Benedek. The seventh-place victory over Montenegro was not the final position proud Hungary was looking for.
In his illustrious career as head coach, Marcz won gold medals at the 2018 FINA World Cup, 2019 Europa Cup and 2020 European Championships; silvers at the 2017 FINA World Championships and 2018 World League Super Final and bronze at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games — six medals in five and a half years.
Savic, who played nearly 450 internationals and spent almost 10 years in the head-coach role, had the golden touch, twice placing Serbia on top of the Olympic dais (2016 and 2020); the 2015 FINA World Championships; six FINA World League crowns; FINA World Cup gold in 2014 and three consecutive European crowns (2014-18) — 13 gold medals.
Serbia struggled to find any winning combinations following the retirements of many legends following Tokyo 2020 and fifth placings at this summer’s FINA World League Super Final and FINA World Championships and then Split’s European disaster sent signals for change. Following discussions with the national federation, Savic’s resignation was accepted.
With 2022 done and dusted, it now remains to be seen how each nation prepares and executes next year’s Fukuoka World Championships and then the February 2024 FINA World Championships in Doha with Paris 2024 on the horizon.