Thrilling Win over Russia Propels Croatia into Tokyo Olympics Men’s Water Polo Draw

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Toni Popadic, shown here competing for VK Jug, came up big for Croatia in its Olympic qualifying win over Russia. Photo Courtesy: VK Jug

With a spot in the Olympics on the line Sunday at the Zwemcentrum Rotterdam, Toni Popadic—the backup goalie for the Croatian men’s water polo squad—delivered perhaps the biggest save of his national team career.

tokyo2020-logoRussia was leading 15-14 in third place match at the Olympic Games Qualification Tournament 2021 when Popadic stopped Roman Shepelev on a penalty shot, allowing Josip Vrlic to knot the score at 15-all on Croatia’s next attempt. It took another ten rounds of penalties until Shepelev missed again, allowing Vrlic to convert and send his team to a seventh-straight Olympic games by virtue of a 25-24 decision over the Russians.

It was a hard luck loss for Russian coach Sergey Evstigneev. His team—one the tournament’s biggest surprises—had already upset the defending Olympic silver medalist in group play. Russia has now missed out on four straight Games, having last qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics, where they captured bronze.

For Croatian Head Coach Ivica Tucak, the relief of qualifying for the world’s biggest polo event was enormous.

“Congratulations to all the players and the staff who have had to go through such a difficult journey in the last year and a half,” Tucak said in remarks following the match. “We are in Tokyo, and there, as always, we will play a significant role.”

The Croats, Greece and Montenegro nabbed the final three spots at the 2021 Tokyo Games. Beginning on July 25th they will join Australia, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Spain, the United States and host Japan in seeking to topple Serbia, the 2016 gold-medalist, at the Tatsumi International Swimming Center.

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Josip Vrlic. Photo Courtesy: Croatian Water Polo Federation

Their success in Rotterdam came a year after this tournament was originally scheduled to be played, following a massive COVID-19 global sports shutdown, one which forced the Olympics Games to be postponed for the first time since World War II resulted in competition being suspended for more than a decade.

That delay almost produced what would have been the biggest upset since Canada upset host Romania in the 2008 Olympic qualifier in Bucharest. Russia came to The Netherlands as the world’s 16th ranked team and proceeded to go on a tear, winning four matches in group play against a a single draw to finish at the top of Group B.

Also qualifying for quarterfinals from the group were a unheralded French squad and the host Dutch, hoping to return to the Games for the first time since 2000.

In Group A play, Greece and Montenegro set the pace, with the Montenegrins topping the Greeks 8-4 to claim top honors. Georgia, which has never qualified for an Olympic Games, and Canada— last appearing there in 2008—also advanced to the quarterfinals.

With Croatia, Greece, Montenegro and Russia all easily advancing to the semifinals, and only three Olympic spots available, the question was: which of these teams would miss out? Greece beat Russia 13-10 in one semifinal, and when Montenegro dispatched regional rival Croatia 14-12 in the other, it was possible that the Croatians’ recent string of Olympic success—which includes gold at the 2012 London Games—might be snapped.

23-07-2017: Waterpolo: Servie v Kroatie: Boedapest (L-R) during the waterpolomatch between men Serbia and Croatia at the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary Photo / Foto: Gertjan Kooij

Ivica Tucak. Photo Courtesy: Beeldboot.nl\Gertjan Kooij

Then, Popadic, who is substituted for starting goalie Marko Bijac specifically in penalty situation, came up big. He faced five other shots during a penalty round that saw Croatia and Russia connect for a combined 27 goals on 30 attempts. Only Croatia’s Luka Bukic and Shepelev missed, a remarkable display of consistency,

The two teams were tied at 11 after regulation, as Croatia gave up a one-goal lead on a score by Dmitrii Kholod with 16 second remaining. For the unfortunate Russians, Bijac also stopped a Shepelev penalty shot with the score 24-24, allowing Vrlic—who four years ago played for Brazil at the Rio Games—to seal the victory for his native country.

“How did I shoot penalties?” said Vrlic after the match. “You step up and fire with all what you have. It’s not that I pick a side in advance, I look where the goalkeeper is, but I shoot hard so he can’t really defend him with both hands.”

A winning approach—and one his coach certainly appreciated, given the alternative.

“At this moment I am completely empty and tired,” Tucak said. “This tournament was really the hardest part of my life.”

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