2019 FINA World Water Polo Championships: Winners and Losers

Tears of joy in the pool for Spain's Daniel Lopez after huge semifinal win over Croatia. Photo Courtesy: Wataru Ninomija / FINA

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After 14 days and almost 100 matches, the FINA World Water Polo Championships are now concluded. It was a fantastic tournament for the Italian men and American women, who each romped undefeated to gold at the Nambu University Municipal Aquatics Center. It’s the first World Championship title in almost a decade for Italy and the third straight for the USA, a feat never accomplished before.

fina-gwangju-jul19There were other clear winners—as well as a number of losers—that emerged from the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships. Swimming World takes a moment to consider the programs and individuals affected, as well as forecast how events at FINA Worlds may impact the upcoming Olympic Games, set to take place in July 2020 in Tokyo, Japan.

We also send our condolences to the families of those individuals who lost their lives in the Coyote Ugly Nightclub tragedy, was well as to wish a speedy recovery to the athletes injured in this terrible accident.


U.S. Women’s Team: there’s no doubt about it, the American women had a fantastic few weeks in South Korea, even if the horrible events at Coyote Ugly—when they and other water polo athletes were celebrating an historic accomplishment—threaten to overshadow their success. Double gold winners for both the World Championships as well as FINA’s inaugural beach water polo tournament—Adam Krikorian’s squad left no doubt that they are by far the best women’s team in the world, and a prohibitive favorite for a third-straight Olympic gold.


Unity is want makes Team USA the world’s best. Photo Courtesy: Hiroyuki Nakamura / FINA

Italian Men’s Team: coming into FINA Worlds, Italy was certainly a contender for gold but probably not a favorite. After running the table to get to the finals, Head Coach Alessandro Campagna’s squad found the right formula to subdue a Spanish squad that had performed the improbable feat of beating Serbia and Croatia in the same tournament. This is something that hadn’t happened since the Americans beat both on their way to silver at the 2008 Beijing Games. Question is: how does Italy’s success translate to the 2020 Olympics?

Spain’s National Polo Program: both the Spanish men and women fell short of gold at FINA Worlds, but collectively it was an historic performance. In the almost two decades of women’s competition in this tournament, no country had placed both squads in the semifinals; Spain’s men and women both advanced to the final. Perhaps it was predictable that the mighty USA women would prevail—which they did by the score of 11-6—but it was thrilling to see the Spanish men battling the Italians after vanquishing the world’s two best polo programs.

[On The Record with BIWPA’s Quim Colet: Spanish Water Polo is Ascendant!]

Canadian Men’s Team: in the strange configuration that is FINA, Canada’s men’s team was not in the main competition–they did not qualify—but they were participants in the inaugural beach water polo competition, where they finished third. The Canadians may have enjoyed the best of both worlds. They got in important training in preparation for the all-important Pan American Games next week in Lima, Peru, where they will look to qualify for their first Olympics since 2008. They also didn’t have to endure the rigors of competing against the world’s best over a minimum of ten grueling days of FINA Worlds competition. What will be telling is how prepared the Canadian are to compete when the ball drops at the Triunfo Sports Center in their first match Sunday, August 4 against Puerto Rico

Stephania Haralabidis: a former Cutino Award winner and NCAA national champion (both in 2016), Haralabidis appeared to be off the radar of the U.S. national team—which she was because, until 2017, she was a member of the Greek national team. That all changed two years ago, when she switched to American citizenship (she had been living in California since high school and attended four years at USC). Now, she has an outside chance of making the American roster for the 2020 Olympics—which is arguably the best possible opportunity for gold for any female polo player. Haralabidis, a swift lefty attacker, scored eight goals at FINA Worlds—and certainly made her former teammates wish she had remained in Greece.

December 14, 2018; Torrance Aquatic Center, Torrance, CA, USA; USA Water Polo Women's Exhibition Series: USA vs China; USA Stephania Haralabidis takes a 5 meter Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

USA’s Stephania Haralabidis. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

New FINA Rules: in the first major test of FINA’s new rules—to be fair, there have been a number of men’s and women’s tournament that have successfully employed the revised regulations—the best news is there were no significant controversies. This is not to say that all are happy; the Croatians might have something to say about how they lost a semifinal match to Spain; ditto for Montenegro to Australia. And, there’s still data to be parsed about if / how the new rules have impacted offense and exclusions. One more data point; how will these new rules hold up when rosters are limited to 11. But, why quibble?

U.S. Men’s National Team: a ninth-place finish at FINA Worlds might not be much to write home about, but they look great after the debacle of 2017, when the Americans were trounced by Japan and ended up 13th, a program worst-ever finish. This tournament presented a fair amount of risk / reward for Dejan Udovicic’s squad. First-time participants Alex Wolf and Hannes Daube were called upon to contribute significantly; for Wolf it was his highest profile appearance since assuming top goalie honors from McQuin Baron. Daube proved equal to his heralded potential; the 19-year old scored 13 times, including the game-winner in the ninth-place match against Montenegro.

[USA Men’s Water Polo At 2019 Pan American Games: Look Out for Brazil]

Udovicic fielded a line-up thrilled to represent their country, and wins against Australia and the afore-mentioned Montenegro will likely provide a lift in the upcoming Pan American Games, where Team USA will seek to qualify for a tenth-straight Olympics.


Croatia Men’s National Team: Head Coach Ivica Tucak brought essentially the same squad to the 2019 tournament that won in 2017; the biggest absence was Sandro Sukno, forced to retire due to a heart condition. But, nine of the players in the Nambu University pool this tournament were on Budapest’s Margaret Island in 2017 when Croatia stunned Serbia in the semifinals, and then beat host Hungary to claim the title. With an Olympic berth on the line, and playing better than any other team in the tournament, it’s hard to fathom how Tucak’s side could have allowed the Spaniards to break out to 6-2 lead. Worse for the Croatians; they now join the rest of the European aspirants—and perhaps others—in the pool of teams at the European Olympic Qualifier next January. It will be stunning if Croatia doesn’t advance—but isn’t it shocking that they didn’t make the finals in Gwuangju?


Photo Courtesy: Hiroyuki Nakamura

Montenegro Men’s National Team: Head Coach Vladimir Gojkovic’s team finished a program worst 10th at this tournament—just ask the Americans how THAT feels—and he must be puzzled by this adverse turn of fortune. Ties in the first two matches of group play, by identical 10-all scores to Serbia and Greece, followed by a blowout win over host South Korea suggested that the Montenegrins were well-positioned for a medal run. A shocking loss to Australia and uber-center Joe Kayes dumped Montenegro into the lower bracket, and a one-goal loss to the Americans applied the coup-de-grace (though Gojkovic inserted back-up goalie Slaven Kandic for the second half, perhaps signifying that the result wasn’t paramount). Montenegro is now in the same boat as Croatia—win in January or stay home.

Kaleigh Gilchrist: Outside of the two South Koreans who lost their lives in the Coyote Ugly Nightclub tragedy, Gilchrist’s was the most serious injury, reported undergoing surgery following the accident. There’s plenty of time to recover before final cuts for the Olympic squad, but any time lost cannot help in a numbers game that was already an uphill climb for her given the talent Krikorian has at his disposal.

[Seri Harris—Fired as Women’s Water Polo Coach—Drops a Bomb on Swimming South Africa]

South Africa Women’s Team: When South Korea lost to Hungary 64-0—the largest margin of defeat in FINA World’s history—the host team at least could make the excuse of inexperience. The South African women lost 33-0 to Holland, and they’ve been playing for decades. Losing almost all of their matches by a cumulative score of 100 to 33—which included a 26 goal splurge in a win against South Korea—underscored a program in crisis brought on by the abrupt sacking of head coach Sarah Harris and the departure prior to this tournament of captain Kelsey White and top goalie Rebecca Thomas. It’s hard to imagine a program in more turmoil at the moment; ironically the South Africans have an automatic berth to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which they almost certainly will not use.


Sarah Harris, unexpectedly deposed as South African women’s head coach. Photo Courtesy: S. Harris

Brazil Men’s National Team: Like the Americans, the Brazilians had a risk versus reward proposition at this tournament: risk injury and / or demoralizing losses against the world’s best for the reward of building confidence in advance of the Pan Am Games. Brazil lost all three of its matches in group play, and only escaped finishing at the bottom of the tournament by virtue of wins over New Zealand and Kazakhstan. How much this will affect the team’s psyche remains to be seen but it will likely be a long trip from Gwangju to Lima for Ricardo Azevedo and his players.

Hungary National Polo Program: at the 2017 FINA Worlds tournament, the host Hungarians looked poised to have both their men and women advance to the semifinals. The men made it to the finals; the women were derailed by Canada and finished fifth. This time, both teams were beached by Italy. The women couldn’t overcome the Italian women in the quarterfinals while the men dropped a tough semifinal match against Campagna’s side. No shame in that but a win would have guaranteed them a spot in the Olympics; now they’ll have to scrum with their continental mates at the European qualifications in January.

Sun Yang: he’s a swimmer—and apparently quite good!—but the young Chinese phenom might do well to reach Dale Carnegie’s classic tome: How To Win Friends and Influence People. With numerous questions raised about his skirting regulations regarding performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), Yang lashed out at fellow competitors who criticized his performances in Gwangju by refusing to stand near him on the podium. The contretemps around this has diminished Yang’s accomplishments—and put the entire championship under the microscope.

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Dante Dettamanti
Dante Dettamanti
4 years ago

Good analysis Mr. Randazzo. However, under NEW FINA RULES, you left out perhaps the biggest controversy of the championships. In the Hungary- Australia men’s game, game tied in the last minute, Aussie Joe Kayes has the ball with inside position and facing the goal when he is sunk by the Hungarian defender from behind. Under the new FINA rules, Kayes should have awarded a penalty shot that would have allowed Australia to achieve a one goal lead with only a few seconds left in the game. The non-call by the referees cost the Australians the opportunity to make the final four teams and a chance for a medal. The two referees were sent home for their lack of judgement that affected the outcome of a critical game.

Dante Dettamanti
Dante Dettamanti
4 years ago

It’s not only water polo. All sports have some problems with referee calls influencing the outcome of a game. Check out the Women’s soccer World Cup and you will see the referee’s influence in almost every game. How many controversial penalty licks were called that influenced games for the USA? Of course, soccer has instant replay where the referee can look at a video of the call to make sure that the call was correct. Water polo doesn’t have this, except on the goal line to see if a goal is really a goal.

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