In FINA Water Polo Semis, Australia Beats Cinderella Germany, Will Play Hungary in First-Ever World Cup Final

German polo fans get to show their passion on Saturday in Berlin. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

BERLIN, Germany. At Europasportpark a burgeoning dream of German polo success took a major hit Saturday with a shootout loss to Australia.


The 11-10 defeat—decided by 3-2 in penalty shots—ended Germany’s thrilling run towards the title match of the FINA Men’s Water Polo World Cup 2018, and relegates the Germans to the third place match against mighty Serbia, a surprise loser on Day Five of action.

Despite the setback, Head Coach Haggen Stamm was impressed by what his players have accomplished all week in front of their countrymen.

“We played our maximum. Australia was in front and we always fought back, so I’m very proud of my boys,” Stamm said right after the match. “At the end not successful, but it’s a question of small things.

“But, if you miss three penalties, it is the case that Australia will beat you.”

Now it’s the Aussies, which has seen a revival of its program with the recent return of Richie Campbell, a veteran of the 2016 Rio Olympics, to Head Coach Elvis Fatovic’s roster, that advances to the their first-ever World Cup final against another surprise winner: Hungary. Head Coach Tamas Marcz’s squad lost their first match 12-10 against an inspired German team—with major credit to the referees who fouled out four Sharks as they, along with players, coaches and spectators, struggle to adapt new rule changes imposed less than two years before polo’s biggest polo event of all: the Olympics.

But the Germans remain the story of this tournament. Even though they dropped a second one-goal decision to the Aussies in the last three days, the collective spirit in the water and in the stands, demonstrate a much brighter future for polo here. The game with Australia was a back and forth affair, with neither team ever gaining more than a one goal advantage. For much of the match German captain Julian Real was the leader his young teammates needed, scoring twice while spearheading a combined defense that limited Joe Kayes, Australia’s massive center, to one score in three opportunities, after he shredded the German defense for five goals in a 9-8 loss on Thursday.

14-09-2018: Waterpolo: Berlin FINA Men’s Water Polo World Cups 2018

Germany’s Julian Real. Photo Courtesy:

But, when his team needed a special moment from their captain, that moment was simply too much; Real missed a penalty shot in the shootout that would have given Germany an insurmountable two goal advantage.

So much has been accomplished in a tournament that has already seen Germany qualify for its first FINA World Championship since 2013, but Stamm was entirely focused on the game at hand.

“First of all we have to play the game tomorrow,” he said. “It will be really important for the boys to win a medal.”

For the Sharks’ coach, perhaps the biggest opponent beside the Germans—and perhaps the referees—was fatigue. Playing for a fifth straight day, he was appreciative that his players rose to the occasion one day after one of the biggest victories of his career as head coach for Australia: a 9-8 victory over Croatia.

“I believe we were more exhausted from the previous game than Germany, because they played with South Africa,” Fatovic said after the match. “But we want to put the best effort for tomorrow; we don’t play so often in the finals of tournament like this.”

That’s a major understatement; this is the first time in history that Australia has advanced this far in a FINA World Cup tournament.


Photo Courtesy: Waterpology

Leading the scoring for the Sharks was Aaron Younger, who struck for three goals; perhaps it’s no surprise that player of the game honors were awarded to goalie Joel Dennerley, who appeared in his first match of the tournament and ended up saving three German penalty attempts in the shootout—the difference between a third-place match against the always-dangerous Serbs and a title match against upstart Hungary.

A little less than two months after a dismal showing at the 2018 European Championships, a young Hungarian squad appear to have found their way against a Serbian team that contained four players from the team that beat them 8-5 in Barcelona.

Saturday was a different story entirely; it’s possible that the Serbs, despite being a consistent finalist the past five years, finally gave way to destiny and fatigue—and an inspired Hungarian effort which saw Bence Batori (3 goals) extinguish Serbian coach Dejan Savic’s hopes for yet another title.

The Serbians had one final chance to tie, and this was an example of where the new rules make perfect sense. Goalie Dimitrije Risticevic, now allowed to roam from beyond midfield, became a seventh attacker and—likely because he was in unfamiliar waters—shot wide of the goal, preserving the Hungarian’s victory.

It’s difficult to know if it’s fatigue or rule adjustments—due to the imposition of a set of new rules as well as interpretations of existing guidelines there has been periodic confusion among all parties, including the spectators. What is known is that on consecutive days the Serbia and Croatia—the world’s two best teams—have been beaten before advancing to a championship final. How long has it been since that occurred?

The perhaps unwanted beneficiary of this turn of polo events is the United States. Still on the outside looking in when it comes to qualifying for the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Team USA kept their hopes alive with a gripping 11-10 win over a team that has emerged as a dangerous rival: Japan. After dashing the Americans’ hopes of a top four finish at the FINA World Water Polo League Super Final last June in Budapest, the Japanese stood between Head Coach Dejan Udovicic’s squad and a fifth place game which might deliver what he seeks: a FINA World Championship spot. Hungary has already booked their punched their ticket to Korea.

Despite what the Americans might think of a team that hadn’t been to the Olympic in 32 years before qualifying for the 2016 Rio Games, the Japanese believe they have achieved parity with their hemisphere foe—and are working to find a way to surpass them.

“As you know in the World League Intercontinental Cup, we are always together with the U.S.,” Japan’s Head Coach Yoji Omoto said in an interview yesterday. “And the U.S. always used to be the best at the Intercontinental, but we beat them in Budapest last year.

“We think we have reached the U.S. level, and sometimes we can beat them,” he added.

In yet what has become the best rivalry in the sport, the two teams battled in the water, with the U.S. brute strength—and scoring capability of Alex Bowen (5 goals) and Luca Cupido (2 goals)—alternating with the fierce counterattacks of Sei Adachi (5 goals) and Keigo Okawa (3 goals). The difference today came down to emotion; seeking to get a monkey off their back against the pesky Japanese, McQuin Baron (15 saves) was strong in goal and the Americans got a brilliant defensive effort from Alex Roelse, who muscled the smaller Japanese around the pool, and Ben Hallock.


U.S. fired up! Photo Courtesy: Lori Verdegaal

After Bowen scored his second goal of the period to give the U.S. a two-goal lead, Baron and his defenders were able to hold off their opponents to advance to a fifth place match against Croatia. The two sides have meet many times before, with the Croatian’s winning almost every time it counts. The one exceptions is recent; at the FINA Super Final the U.S. played a gritty match in beating Croatia 12-11 on the strength of five goals from Bowen.

It will take a similarly heroic effort from the Americans to beat the Croats, capture fifth and book a spot in the 2019 FINA Worlds. It’s not impossible but—with Head Coach Ivica Tucak having at his disposal nine of his starters from last year’s World Championship squad, it may be a lot to ask of a young U.S. squad.

Regardless of how Sunday’s action plays out, the clear winner remains the Germans. A few weeks from now their profession teams will open LEN Championship League play knowing that they’re ready to compete with the world’s best.

“We will take it step-by-step,” Stamm said. “There’s an Olympic qualification tournament, there’s a European Championship before… but I’m happy I have a good, fighting team.”