2020 European Water Polo Championship Finals: A Spanish Affair with Hungarian Men, Russian Women

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Spain's Paula Leiton Arrones (#12) has eight goals for Spain in seven matches. Photo Courtesy: Deepbluemedia / Giorgio Scala

In what may be a precursor of greater success at the 2020 Olympics, Spain has again pulled of a rare double feat in a top water polo tournament. With wins by its men and women at the semifinals of the 34th LEN European Water Polo Championship, starting later today the Spaniards will be in position for double gold at the Duna Aréna in Budapest. This is a repeat of the same scenario from last summer at the 18th FINA World Water Polo Championships in Gwuangju, South Korea, where they earned silver in both finals.

[2019 FINA World Water Polo Championships: Winners and Losers]

2020_european_champ_logoOn Friday in a men’s semifinal contest, Spain held of Croatia 9-8 to advance to the title match Sunday against host Hungary, a 10-8 winner over Montenegro in the other semifinal. Led by Alberto Munarriz Egaña’s three goals and goalie Daniel Lopez Pinedo’s 13 saves, the Spaniards repeated a one-goal victory over the Croatians in the semifinals of FINA Worlds. This not only again puts them in the final, it represents yet another failure in a clutch moment by Croatia coach Ivica Tucak’s team, which will now have to find a new path to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.

In a women’s semifinal on Thursday, the Spaniards overcame both the Hungarians and a rabid home crowd to win 11-10 on a pair of three-goal performances by Anna Spar Llaquet and Roser Tarrago. They will now face a Russian side that beat the Netherlands in a shootout, as goalie Anna Karnaukh stuffed Dutch star Sabrina Van Der Sloot on her team’s final penalty shot to give Russia the victory.

Spain’s success was Hungary’s failure; a win would have positioned Head Coach Atilla Biró’s squad not only for European gold at home, but also a berth at the Tokyo Games.

[On The Record with Atilla Biró, Hungary Head Women’s Water Polo Coach]

Instead, in a twist that might only be appreciated in the small world of international water polo, by virtual of their double wins Spain qualifies both finals opponents as Olympic participants. As a result of their finals performance in FINA Worlds, the Spanish men and women had already booked a berth at Tokyo. Given this circumstance—and the automatic Olympic bid available to one men’s and one women’s team in Budapest—both the Hungarian men and the Russian women are now going to the 2020 Games.

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Hungary’s Tamas Marcz. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

The win proved prophetic for Hungarian Head Coach Tamás Marcz, who in an interview last month with Water Polo NewsVanda Orosz exclaimed: “We expect to be at the Olympics, and we will be there!”

After Friday’s Olympic-clinching victory, Marcz, who won gold as a goalie for Hungary in the 2000 Sydney Games, said: “That was a very tough match. [My players] showed an unlimited desire, which I have not seen from them for a while. Now we feel enormous relief as the road to the final was anything but easy.”

For the Russian women, there is perhaps a sense of accomplishment as well as some mystery; their country has been banned from the 2020 Olympics, pending appeals, by the International Olympic Committee. This is another chapter in the story of the massive doping scandal that took place during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a situation which was aggravated last year when Russian officials were caught manipulating doping data in a review by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

That matters little to Russian Head Coach Alexander Gaidukov and his players, who have thus far enjoyed a brilliant run to the final, losing a lone match in group play by a single goal to Hungary. Now they are in position for European Championship gold for the first time since 2010, the last of a run of three straight titles starting in 2006

The women’s gold medal match is available for live streaming via Digital Motion here; match time is 1 p.m. (EST).

Spain is the story of this championship

No matter what happens in the tournament finals, there’s no question that Spain’s standing on the world stage is preeminent. A win in both finals would be the first time since the Italians accomplished the feat in 1995. At the World Championships in 2019, Spain was the first ever country to put two teams in the finals.

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

“I don’t have words for this,” said Spain’s Head Coach David Martin after the win over Croatia. “It was another really difficult game for us. I am so proud of my team. We scored some beautiful goals.

“We are hungry for trophies and medals and overjoyed with another final we will play,” he added.

A win in the men’s final may will give Martin his first gold in a Euro Championship and remove some of the sting of a loss by shootout to the Serbians in the 2018 final in Barcelona.

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Spainiards know how to celebrate a win over Croatia!Photo Courtesy: Hiroyuki Nakamura / FINA

For the women, gold is the standard in Europe, but their biggest rivals—the Americans—have lost once in the past two years and dominated the Spaniards in their last two meetings, an 11-6 loss in the 2019 FINA World Championship final, and am 11-5 semifinal loss in the 2018 FINA World Cup.

What of the Dutch and Hungarian women?

There’s the possibility that for the Hungarians and the Dutch—who on Thursday both suffered their first loss after winning six straight to open the tournament—doubt will creep in regarding their Olympic chances. For Biró, the disappointment of losing in front of the hometown crowd is sure to sting. Like the Dutch, they have another shot at Tokyo; from March 15 – 22 there is a European Qualification tournament in Italy, which offers the final three berths to the 2020 Games.

What the Hungarians have that the Dutch don’t is recent success. Holland failed to qualify for the last two Olympic Games. The most disappointing of these efforts came in 2016 when Head Coach Arno Havenga’s squad failed to advance despite having home court advantage, with the qualifying tournament being held in Gouda, Holland.

Luckily, there’s always the next match; Hungary and Holland will compete in a third-place match today. Then plans for what comes next on the long and winding road to Tokyo.