Gergely Csurka, FINA Media Committee

The last available Olympic berth was decided in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. Croatia and Russia played a highly exciting match which ended in a draw so the penalties determined the winner. And it took 15 rounds – 30 shots! – to find out who goes to Tokyo and who should watch the Games from home. In the fifth round Russia was just one shot away from making it, but Croatian goalie Toni Popadic saved the day for his country and 9 rounds later Roman Shepelev missed once more and the next converted penalty sent the Croats to Japan. The first place went to Montenegro since its fine last period effort – staged a 4-0 run after 6-8 – turned the match against Greece. That concluded the perfectly organised tournament which was held amidst strict restrictions but thanks to those, the Covid-19 virus did not have any impact on the event.

The big question of the last day here in Rotterdam was simple: can Croatia – Olympic champion in 2012, silver medallist in 2016, world champion in 2017 – finally win a really important match at a FINA event this year?

Just have a look what happened to them since January.

– World League European qualifiers in Debrecen:

+ Quarter-final v Montenegro – led 10-8 with two minutes remaining, but it ended 10-10, Montenegro won with penalties.

+ For places 5-8th, v Hungary – led 11-9 with three and half minutes before the end, then sank with 0-4.

– Here at the Olympic Qualification Tournament:

+ Group match v Russia – led 13-9 late in the third, failed to score in the last 10 minutes, losing 13-14

+ Semi-final v Montenegro – led 10-9, had a man-up 1:24 to go, missed, conceded a goal 24 seconds from time, lost in the shootout.

Add that the Croats had three chances before this meet to qualify for the Olympics, but each time they lost the key match by one goal (2019 World League final to Serbia, 2019 World Championship and 2020 European Championship semi-final to Spain – each by a singe goal). And blew the fourth here by falling against Montenegro.

So it was now or never – but also for the Russians who developed a lot in recent years after they had even failed to advance from the group stage five years ago at the same event.

Russia's master shooter Daniil Merkulov – playing in Croatia in the club season – enjoyed a great game but did not enjoy a happy end in the thriller - Photos: Marcel tel Bals

The answer to the above question was a yes at the end – though the Croats could not finish the match in regular time once more. They struggled to keep the lead, and after a while they had to chase the Russians who offered a fine performance and went ahead by halftime at 6-7. Early in the third they could have easily made the Croats even tenser but within a minute they missed a penalty and a 6 on 4 and soon the favourites seemed to gain control by winning this period 3-1. However, they were unable to hold on, they could not double their lead, and the Russians managed to equalise three times in the final period – for the last time 16 seconds from time. Then came the heart-stopping shootout where the Croats made the first miss in the fourth round, so at 4-3 Russia only needed a converted penalty to win the match and claim the ticket to Tokyo. But Tony Popadic, who jumped to the pool for the first time in the entire match, managed to save Roman Shepelev’s shot and at the other end Josip Vrlic prolonged the shootout. It was quite an extension, 9 more rounds came without a miss, then in Round 15 Shepelev was denied again, this time by returning goalie Marko Bijac and Vrlic made no mistake with the 30th shot and sent his team to Tokyo.

After losing a crucial shootout on Saturday, they managed to nail the next one on Sunday, Croatia thus managed to book its ticket after coming short four times in the past one and a half years.This means that ever since they appeared at the Games as an independent nation in 1996, they never missed the biggest show on Earth. On contrary, Russia will have to wait at least 20 years to see the men’s team’s possible return to the Olympics as they could not make the cut since 2004.

Just a side note: in a rare scenario, all four encounters in the last day was a ‘re-match’ as well since the respective sides had already met in the prelims. Apart from the highlighted contest for the third place, the final was a kind of ‘decider’ in the ‘winter series’ between Montenegro and Greece. They also clashed in the World League European Qualifiers’ final five week ago in Debrecen (HUN), there Greece dominated throughout the match and won 12-7. Here on Day 4 Montenegro hit back with a clean 8-4 win – so they stood 1-1 before the last match here in Rotterdam. And the series went to Montenegro – though it was an ‘all-smiling’ encounter, featuring too extremely happy teams, which spent the previous evening (night?...) with celebrating their Olympic qualifications. This game had nothing at stake, not even had an impact on the Olympic draw as they were placed in the same batch. Of course, pride and playing and fighting spirit are the highest ranked values in water polo, so both sides played with full gear – at least on the highest available gear as the players were a bit exhausted on the 8th day.

Though nothing big was at stake, the final still offered a very serious battle

Greece took the better start and kept the control for three periods while building a 6-8 lead. Then in the fourth, at 7-8, a withdrawn goal somewhat broke them while Dusan Matkovic flew high and scored a hattrick (netted 5 altogether) and that helped his side to stage a 4-0 run in the final period while the Greeks could score only 8 seconds from time and lost 10-9. Still, they didn’t look disappointed – the ticket to Tokyo was a perfect consolation for any pain they might have felt.

In the matches for the lower placements the players also burnt their very last reserves but tried to finish the tournament on a high note. Of course, speed and sharpness were no longer there on the eighth day – France and Netherlands came from Group B where all six rounds were played (teams from Group A had a rest day due to Turkey’s withdrawal), so they had their 8th game here in as many days, a brutal physical challenge for semi-professional players.

A scene from the battlefield - the Dutch defence at work

As for the French and the Dutch, their match was an 11-11 tie on Day 4 – a miraculous comeback in the fourth (6-2), including a last-grasp goal brought Holland on level by the end. This time they repeated that scenario, just the outcome was different. The hosts took a 4-2 lead but soon their energy-level dropped and France took command and went 8-5 up by the end of the third. What came next was another resurrection of the hosts who bounced back from their ashes with a 5-1 rush in the fourth to earn their 4th win here and finish fifth, a great feat from their side.

Georgia beat the Canadians for the second time here, and unlike in the first (14-11), they already decided the outcome by halftime as the Canadian goalies could not handle the outside shots (stood 1/13 at halftime). Georgia even set a new record here by netting the highest number of goals within a single period (they won the second 8-3) – though the second half was much more balanced.

The tournament concluded with the draws for the Olympic tournaments (see the separate article). Before that, FINA Bureau Liaison Andriy Kryukov held a short speech and thanks the Dutch organisers and the FINA Officials to organise a perfect tournament which went smoothly for eight days without any problems. “We are really grateful for everyone that we were able to prove that it is possible to stage an 8-day event with eleven teams without experiencing the tiniest impact of the pandemic” Mr Kryukov said. “Of course, very strict protocols were in place, but if all stakeholders respect them even an event of this measure can go smoothly. That is a strong message that sport shall prevail and will help all of us to believe that we can get back our normal life at the end.”

Final rankings:

1. Montenegro, 2. Greece, 3. Croatia – 4. Russia, 5. Netherlands, 6. France, 7. Georgia, 8. Canada

Top three ranked sides qualified for the Olympic Games.