Stunning Results at FINA Men’s World Water Polo Championship: Croatia Beats Serbia and Will Meet Hungary in Saturday’s Final

Croatian team celebrates a huge win over archrival Serbia. Photo Courtesy: DeepBlueMedia

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By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

BUDAPEST, Hungary. On a positively brilliant night in Budapest, an almost indescribable program of water polo took place at the Alfred Hajos Pool. In front of an adoring crowd of over 7,000 fans, the Hungarian men’s team suffocated a frustrated Greek team by a score of 7-5 to advance to the 2017 FINA World Championship.

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In the nightcap of what will be remembered as one of the more memorable water polo matches played in one of the sport’s most honored venues, Croatia shocked the mighty Serbian team by a score of 12-11, ending the Serbs’ run as one of the most dominant teams in the history of the sport. With the upset, Croatia will join Hungary at Hajos pool for Saturday’s FINA Championship Final at 2:30 p.m. EST / 11:30 a/m/ PST.

Serbia, the defending World, Olympic and European champions had not lost in a major championship for more than four years.

For the Croatians, who less than a year before were dominated by their arch-rivals in an 11-7 loss in the Rio Olympics gold medal match, the win over Serbia—it’s first since 2010—represents one of the bigger wins in the long and contentious history between these two former Yugoslavian neighbors.

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Croatian head coach Ivica Tucak. Photo Courtesy: DeepBlueMedia

Immediately after the match, Croatian head coach Ivica Tucak was almost defiant in responding to suggestions that Serbia could not be beaten

“Why were people thinking that we cannot win,” he said in remarks that Swimming World has translated from Tucak’s native Croatian. “We have a great team, we were physically prepared, we played hard and won.”

“The difference between games in the past and tonight’s game is that we were better,” he added.

Given the past rivalry between the two countries, anytime Croatia and Serbia face one another it’s as physical and emotional of a contest as any polo match can be. This latest encounter was no different, as the two teams traded goals throughout, Serbia never got more than one goal ahead while Croatia did not take the lead until it’s final score with 3 minutes left.

The Croatians were led by three goals each from Sandro Sukno and Maro Jokovic. It was Jokovic’s fourth quarter skip shot past goalie Branislav Mitrovic that proved to be decisive. Jokovic also scored on a 5-meter penalty shot that was called with one second left in the third period and Serbia leading by a goal. Andrija Prlainovic scored six goals for Serbia, including three in an incredible third period that saw both teams trading goals four times each.

Filip Filipovic, acknowledged by many to be the best player in the world, was stunned by the outcome.

“First I would like to congratulate our opponent, the team of Croatia. They deserved to win this game,” he said in English. “It was a physically difficult and stressful game,”

Explaining that the Croatian game plan was to break his team’s rhythm— Filipovic missed on both his shots for the night—he said: “I think they succeeded.”

It wouldn’t be Serbia vs. Croatia if there weren’t some controversy, Besides the questionable 5-meter penalty, there was a double exclusion with three seconds left in the game that saw Filipovic and Croatia’s Andro Buslje kicked out right before the underdog Croats broke into celebration.

When asked about Saturday’s final match-up with Hungary, an exhausted Tucak explained that: “It’s going to be very difficult. They are a great team, they have great individuals, they are very strong.”

In the evening’s first match, an inspired defensive effort anchored by goalie Victor Nagy (12 saves), held the Greek offense in check while Hungary’s offense did just enough to keep their opponent at bay.

After a first half that saw the Hungarians take a 5-4 lead into intermission, head coach Tamas Marcz was able to shortened the match in the second, frustrating Greeks, who hit numerous posts but were only able to solve Nagy once, on a goal by Ioannis Fountoulis with four second remaining and the match no longer in doubt.

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Hungary’s Denes Varga. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Marcz, who has taken his team on an incredible run only six months into his coaching tenure, was remarkably composed following such an important win for Hungarian polo.

“It was a very difficult game because Greece plays a beautiful game, “ Marcz said. It’s not easy to win against them.”

Addressing the unexpected success his team has enjoyed in this world championship, Marcz admitted: “We were not favored for the final, but here we have arrived.”

In making an undefeated run through their group and with quarter- and semifinal wins—the only blemish on their record was an entertaining tie with the Italians back in group play, Marcz said: “Our players did the best they could, they were very concentrated and I am so happy.”

Hungary was led by two goals each from Marton Vamos and Norbert Hosnyanszky, which included a highlight reel backhand shot that electrified the crowd.

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Hungary’s Victor Nagy. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Greece got a hat trick from Konstantinos Genidounias but were only able to must one goal in the second half despite peppering Nagy with numerous scoring opportunities.

In the bedlam that followed the Hungarian win, Balazs Erdelyi—a three-time Peter J. Cutino Award winner who played for Pacific University from 2009-13—said that it was impossible for him to explain what it is like to have such success playing for such passionate fans.

“You can’t really explain what it’s like to play in front of 7,000 people,” he said. “This is amazing… [it’s] probably one of the best experiences of my life.”

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Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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