Croatia won a historic gold medal in London four years ago. Unanimous hero for the squad then was Josip Pavic, MVP of the tournament and FINA World Player of the Year for 2012. His heroics there and great career led to Pavic being selected as flag bearer for Croatia in Rio. Just the third water polo player from his country to receive that honour. But as the Rio Olympic water polo tournament kicked off the next morning after the opening ceremony, it was agreed upon that Marko Bijac would start in goal that first preliminary round match. It didn’t affect the team, at all. Croatia, not a unique situation though, has the luxury of having two experienced and quality goalkeepers. What we witnessed was a team delivering the most steady performance during the group stage in which the goalkeepers split playing time. They went 50/50 in minutes played while the team played top water polo and could even decide not to finish first in the group looking ahead to the knockout stage. Now that’s different from the other teams in Rio with goalkeepers challenging each other on the same team.
Hungary (Viktor Nagy and Attila Decker) were knocked out in the quarterfinals with Nagy in an inconsistent role. Serbia (Branislav Mitrovic, Gojko Pijetlovic) experienced a rough group stage but coach Dejan Savic held confidence in his initial first choice of Mitrovic who eventually excelled in their 10-8 semi-final win over Italy.
Back to Croatia
Remembering Pavic’ heroics in London being a large part of the gold medal win, the team in Rio again can build upon the convincing performance of a great goalie. His name? Marko Bijac. Former back-up goalkeeper to Pavic but we might be witnessing his takeover. The 25-year old had to split minutes with Pavic in the group stage but from there on has been the first choice of head coach Ivica Tucak. And is not disappointing. Not at all.
Posting 15 saves for a 71,4 percentage in the 6-10 quarterfinal win over Brazil, Bijac again stepped up in the big semi-final match against Montenegro. Maybe it was not so much the 10 saves that he recorded, but even more the moments that he did it. The highlight was incredible save of Montenegro’s Aleksandar Ivovic (former team-mate at Jug) shot from close on a drive towards goal that got his team fired up. Jumping to the corner where Ivovic was driving, he got up his body horizontally just above the surface of the water so that when Ivovic shot just next to him, it hit Bijac body and went out. Coincidence? Nah. In the third quarter, Bijac was right there on two close tip ins from right in front of him during two consecutive Montenegro extra man possessions. Perhaps crucial moments. Croatia led 8-6 and Montenegro therewith missed two huge chances of cutting the deficit to a single-goal difference margin. Croatia closed out the 3rd quarter with that score (6-8) and in the first half of the final term sealed the win.
Again, ten saves in an Olympic semi-final is a nice stat line, but what kind of saves and at what moments tells you the story behind the statistics. Bijac shows no fear shows great potential and is seeking international fame. Like Josip Pavic did four years ago. The difference? Pavic was aged 30 at the time, Bijac is only 25 now.