Dutch, Hungarian Women on Collision Course for 2020 European Water Polo Championship Final

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Goalie Debbie Willemsz will be key if the Netherlands is to capture a 2nd-straight European Championship. Photo Courtesy: Sherie Key/USAWP

After five days of group play at the 34th LEN European Championships, two women’s teams have emerged unscathed—and are on target for the tournament final next weekend at Budapest’s Duna Aréna. On Saturday host Hungary scorched winless Serbia 27-0 while the Netherlands toppled previously undefeated Spain 10-6, the Hungarians and the Dutch are the two top seeds in quarterfinal play, which will begin Tuesday.

2020_european_champ_logoThe Netherlands is the defending European Champions, a title they earned two summers ago in Barcelona by downing Greece 6-4 in the final. They have had less success qualifying for the Olympics, having missed out on the past two Games after winning gold in the 2008 Beijing Games.

If both teams—which last met in the quarterfinals of the FINA Women’s Water Polo World League Super Final 2019, a 16-14 Dutch win—advance through the semifinals, Hungary and the Netherlands will play for the 2020 European Championship title and a berth in the Tokyo Olympics.

Before these teams can dream of gold, they must get past lesser opponents in Tuesday’s quarterfinal round., The Hungarians (5-0 Group A) face a French squad (2-3 Group B) that has a -22 goal differential in Group A play. The Dutch (5-0 Group B) will look to get past a Slovakia (2-3 Group A) which has scored 21 goals in Group B play while surrendering 78. Those opponents have already played once this tournament; Hungary beat Slovakia 20-2 and Holland downed France 18-1.

The other two match-ups on Tuesday will be Russia (4-1 Group A) with a gaudy +91 goal differential, and Italy (3-2 Group B). Russia finished group play on Saturday with a 12-7 win over Greece (3-2 Group A). The Russians have two of the top four scorers of the tournament; Olga Gorbunova has 20 goals to lead the all scorers through five games, while Alena Serzhantova has 17 scores.

Greece draws Spain (4-1 Group B) in the other quarterfinal match; Beatriz Ortiz Muñoz has delivered 12 goals for her country, but defense has been a feature of the Spaniard game. They have surrendered 32 goals in five matches, including 10 in the loss to Holland where Ortiz Muñoz hit on one of seven shots. Showing the way in that Dutch win with a hat-trick was Maud Megens. The lanky striker leads her teammates with 17 goals; she has been on fire the last two months, including a blistering five scores in a narrow 22-20 loss to the US in the 2020 Holiday Cup.

[USA Water Polo Holiday Cup: US Women Escape with Win On Penalties in Sudden Death; Streak Now at 65]

A key take-away in Hungary’s win over Spain was the play of goalie Debby Willemsz. With 14 saves against a Spanish side which has already qualified for the Tokyo Games by virtue of a second-place finish in the 18th FINA World Championships last summer, the 25-year-old Willemsz demonstrated that she is a key component for a Dutch team that lost leading goalie Laura Aarts prior to this Olympic qualification cycle.

[On The Record with Arno Havenga, Dutch Head Women’s Water Polo Coach]

The tournaments other top scorer thus far is Rita Keszthelyi-Nagy with 19 goals. She reached that total after scoring on four of five shots in the rout over Serbia. The Hungarian captain has had a lot of help; her team has registered 94 goals, second only to the Russian total of 112, and Keszthelyi-Nagy is joined on the leader board by Greta Gurisatti (12 goals)

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Israeli national water polo team. Photo Courtesy: Israeli Water Polo Association

At the bottom of the brackets, winless Germany (0-5 Group B) and Serbia (0-5 Group A) will face off for 11th place, while Croatia (1-4 Group A) and Israel (1-4 Group B) will content for 9th place. On Saturday, the Israelis won a European Championship match for first time in program history, beating Germany 10-3.

Leading the way was captain Shunit Strugo with four goals, as Israel broke a 1-1 first period lead, scoring 10 unanswered goals before two late scores by the Germans.

This is an amazing reversal for a squad whose identity had been shaped by ugly protests in 2018, when the city of Barcelona banned them from playing a FINA-sanctioned match and put the Israeli women squarely in the middle of a political dispute between the Spanish and the Israeli governments.

The Barcelona government relented when outrage regarding their actions caused the match to be rescheduled,

[Barcelona Separatists Postpone—But Can’t Prevent—Israel vs. Spain Water Polo Match]

The success of Strugo and her teammates in Budapest is a welcome development in a tournament whose top teams feel the pressure of Olympic expections—one the Israelis may not be so far from experiencing.

For live streaming and all scoring sheets, visit the 2020 Budapest website here.