Gergely Csurka, FINA Media Committee

Extremely happy Montenegrin players could pose with the giant ticket for Tokyo at the end of the first semi-final as they won an incredible match against arch-rival Croatia, in a penalty shootout. Greece joined them next – after being on the brink of elimination against France in the quarters, they came up with their best performance here in the most important match and won a highly entertaining game against Russia. Thus Sunday will see a do-or-die clash between Croatia and Russia for the last remaining Olympic berth while Montenegro and Greece will have another all-smiling final, five weeks after they had the same in the World League qualifiers. 

The first decider couldn’t have been any more thrilling here in Rotterdam as Montenegro and Croatia produced a neck-to-neck battle which could have gone to either way. Only once in the entire match we saw a two-goal gap, early in the third when Montenegro led 7-5 but the Croats responded brilliantly and by scoring four action goals they turned into the final period by holding a 9-8 lead. Montenegro held on, however, but in the extreme physical and mental battle the Croats had a match-ball, a 6 on 5 after a time-out with 1:24 remaining while leading 10-9. They missed it – were 1 for 9 in man-ups, one of the reasons why they could not make it at the end – while the Montenegrins managed to put their last man-up away 24 seconds from time. It was 10-10 and just like five weeks ago in the World League qualification quarter-final, the penalties decided the outcome. Montenegro had won back then – and they repeated that again and this time an Olympic berth was their reward which they celebrated quite widely.

Ready to board the flight to Tokyo – the happy Montenegrins who will be part of the show for the 4th consecutive edition of the Games - Photos: Marcel tel Bals

On the other end of the pool the Croatians were staring the floor – in fact they just got into an extremely dangerous position: they had four chances to qualify for the Games but blew them all. They were close in the World League Super Final but lost by one to the Serbs in Belgrade (11-12). A win in the World Championships semis would have also earned them an Olympic spot – they lost to the Spaniards by a single goal again (5-6). At the 2020 Europeans they lost to Spain once more in the semis – again with a single goal (8-9). Here they were one goal away again... (perhaps add their unbelievable defeat from Russia, when the lost 13-14 after leading 13-9 – if they drew there, they could have played with Greece, perhaps we could have seen a different outcome today...) Now only one last chance remains for Croatia, the bronze medal game – otherwise, for the first time since they gained independence, they would miss the Games (first appearance was in 1996). In contrast, Montenegro, since separated from Serbia, is 4 out of 4 now.

The Greek flight is ready for take-off now too – destination: Tokyo

The Croats will have a do-or-die battle against Russia as their Sunday opponent went down against Greece in a really entertaining match. As it happened many times in ball sports, a team barely surviving one knockout match starts flying high in the next big encounter. The Greeks were in huge trouble against France in the quarters (trailed by three after a 0-6 misery and by two before the last quarter) but managed to win in the shootout – then they jumped in for the semis just 24 hours later and never let the Russians lead for a single moment in the entire match. It was exciting of course, as Russia could come back from 4-1 to 5-5 in the first half and always had the right responses in the third when the goals started flooding – at the beginning of this period two apiece came within 78 seconds, then five in a row at the end in a span of 1:52 minutes. However, the Greek were still leading 11-9 before the final period and there the Russian offence fell apart – in the first two and a half minutes they missed three man-up in succession while the Greeks scored twice between those misses to gain a 13-9 lead and that decided the outcome. Russia could score one more in the remaining 5:50 minutes so the Greeks qualified for the Games – which they have always achieved since 1980 (the last time they were not present dates back to 1976).

It was a huge relief for them, not only because of the quarter-final’s drama but also because the women’s team will miss the Games for the third time in a row – and the Greeks also had bad memories from the qualification tournament held here in the Netherlands. Five years ago in Gouda the female side lost amidst ‘impossible’ circumstances against guess who – the Russians, after blowing a secure lead late in the fourth and then losing the shootout.

This time it was Greece all the way – while Russia’s hope to return to the Olympic scene for the first time in 2004 now depends on one single match against Croatia (add in contrast that their women’s side is the only European team which were present at each edition since the inaugural tournament in 2000).

Mehdi Marzouki played another great game for France

The matches of the disappointed sides for the places 5-8th were rather motivation challenges and in that aspect the Netherlands and France slightly outdid their respective rivals. Georgia and Canada also tried to give their best but in the key moments the Dutch and French committed less mistakes. And besides having succeeded with clearing their minds, they were also in a bit better physical shape so they could keep the lead they took in the early stages of the matches.

Fixtures for Sunday

10.00 – For places 7-8th: Georgia v Canada

12.00 – For places 5-6th: Netherlands v France

14.00 – Bronze medal: Croatia v Russia

16.00 – Final: Montenegro v Greece

The top three ranked sides qualify for the Tokyo Games.

The draw for the Olympic tournaments – both men and women – will be held here in Rotterdam from 18.30 CET.