The opening day of the 2016 Olympic Games is upon us. The first day of competition after the opening ceremony in Rio will also see the start of the Olympic Water Polo tournament. A true classic will get it underway as Serbia and Hungary, obvious medal contenders, square off. But what matches are to take place after that? A review of the match-ups on opening day.
Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Saturday, August 6 – day 1
09.00: Serbia vs. Hungary – men
Two superpowers in a clash that could very well be the finals match-up in two weeks from now. The sides met just two weeks ago in Belgrade for a friendly, won by the home water polo team 12-11 in front of 1,500 spectators. Neither team however in that stage of preparation showed all they have. The question could even be whether that will be the case in Saturday’s meeting. The pressure is there, the hunger to start the tournament also. A true 50/50 chance for either side to come away with the win. Both offensive qualities are almost unprecedented. The defence can really win it. A winner is hard to predict, a great game not. Usually, the showdowns between Serbia and Hungary at a major tournament are full of excitement.
10.20: USA vs. Croatia – men
Another interesting match-up already on opening day. A rejuvenated USA water polo team compared to London 2012 is hungry for success under new head coach Dejan Udovicic. In a strong group B the Americans meet medal contender and reigning champion Croatia at first. The Croatians will be looking to see where they stand. Experienced as they are, the team looked pretty solid in the preparation phase despite missing Paulo Obradovic and Petar Muslim’s fire power, compared to London 2012 and even last year’s World Championships where the Croatians made it to the final. Flag bearer Josip Pavic will be coming off a long programme on Friday during opening ceremony where the rest of the team will not be participating in. If he can take the group on his shoulders, like he did during the Olympics in London, and Sandro Sukno will do the same on offence, Croatia can be called a favourite, for this one and after. Nevertheless, it will be very interesting to see what Team USA can do as, unlike group A, there are more contenders than places for the knockout stage available in this tough group B.
11.40: Spain vs. Italy – men
Two other squads who have their sites on the quarterfinals are Spain and Italy. Like USA and Croatia, they will also have to be there and ready right from the start since points are welcome in what promises to be a tight race for the top 4 spots in the group. The match-up is perhaps one of the most legendary in recent history as Italy (coached by Ratko Rudic) edged the hosts three separate periods of extra time 8-9 for the gold medal at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Among the winners was current head coach Alessandro Campagna.
Spain has kept its core together following their 6th place finish at London 2012. But with Felipe Perrone back to Brazil, the team’s top scorer (16 goals in London) is gone. Albert Español (14 hits in London) is back, and so are veterans Marc Minguell, captain Guillermo Molina and the pair of goalies Daniel Lopez and Iñaki Aguilar. Together with fellow 2nd time Olympians, leftie Blai Mallarach and center Balazs Sziranyi, they will have to deliver, with a backup crew that includes newcomers Gonzalo Echenique (for the offensive spark), Fran Fernandez, talents Ricard Alarcon, Alberto Munarriz and center Roger Tahull.
A same balance in the water polo Italian team where the experience is underlined by goalie Stefano Tempesti (pictured) who overcame an eye injury during preparation to be ready and fit for the Rio Olympics. He leads a balanced Italian squad that features veterans Christian Presciutti, Pietro Figlioli and Valentino Gallo who all played major roles in Italy’s run to the final in London 4 years ago. Defender and fellow Olympic silver medallist Niccolo’ Gitto will now see youngster Alessandro Velotto as his back-up after coach Alessandro Campagna included some debutants in the squad for Rio. Most notable is French-born Michaël Bodegas who will also make defensive minutes for the squad. His presence provides an end-to-end center action which has to spare Matteo Aicardi in his minutes. Meanwhile, the back-up crew consists of one more left-hander in Alessandro Nora and talented youngsters such as Pro Recco pair Francesco di Fulvio (could be making his mark on offence), Andrea Fondelli and Nicholas Presciutti. When tactically as good as in London, the Italians are the favourites; also for the medals.
13.00: Greece vs. Japan – men
Greece the clear favourites in this one as they kick off their tournament by taking on Japan, back on the Olympic podium for the first time since the ’84 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (11th place there). But with Ioannis Fountoulis overcoming a slight shoulder injury during preparation, and Angelos Vlachopoulos bothered by an elbow injury, the top 2 shotguns of the team have not enjoyed a smooth build-up to Rio 2016. However, this opening match could serve as an opportunity for the side to come together, shrug off any nerves or lack of rhythm in order to be ready to face Serbia in game 2 on Monday morning.
19.30: France vs. Montenegro – men
A special one for Ugo Crousillat. Member of the Montenegrin team that went all the way to the final at the 2013 Water Polo World Championships in Barcelona. After a year of international absence, Crousillat, however, was cleared to return to his native France national team and guided them the Olympics in a close qualification tournament in Trieste, Italy. History was made as the French had been absent from the Olympics since Barcelona 1992. Who else to face in the opener than your former team which still includes so many players from Barcelona 2013. The ambitious French are aiming for the quarterfinals but didn’t have too much luck being drawn in group B. They start by taking on an experienced Montenegro water polo team where new head coach Vladimir Gojkovic (still in the water for Montenegro at London 2012) preferred experience over new players. A group that has been together for quite some time will miss Nikola Janovic and center Nikola Vukcevic compared to the 2016 European Championships as Filip Klikovac and Sasa Misic takes the center position while defender Uros Cuckovic and goalkeeper Zdravko Radic made their return to the team.
20.50: Brazil vs. Australia – men
The closer of the first day of action is the match-up of host nation Brazil and Australia. The Aussie Sharks came out with promising performances following Elvis Fatovic’ assignment as head coach of the squad, although in both the 2013 and 2015 Water Polo World Championships it ended in a disappointing 8th place finish. Serbia, in particular, is warned. They were forced to a comeback in the London 2012 quarterfinals and narrowly edged the Aussies during group play of the 2015 World Championships in Kazan: 9-10. In the quarterfinals of the 2013 World Championships Croatia just survived (7-6). It summarises the team’s potential in the big tournament. The two teams met in May during the World League Intercontinental tournament where the Sharks won 13-9. However facing Brazil at the Olympics in their home will be a different story. Nevertheless, should the Aussies consider themselves favourites. For Brazil, bolstered by the international experience of goalie Slobodan Soro and center Josip Vrlic and the return of one of the current best players in the world Felipe Perrone, a good result against Australia could spark them towards what would be a possible spectacular quarterfinals berth with Japan being the opponent in game 2.
Monday, August 8 – day 2
09.00: Serbia vs. Greece – men
10.20: Italy vs. France – men
11.40: USA vs. Spain – men
13.00: Hungary vs. Australia – men
19.30: Japan vs. Brazil – men
20.50: Croatia vs. Montenegro – men
N.b.: Time mentioned is local time (UTC/GMT – 3 hours)