The 36th edition of the European Championships, initially intended to be hosted by Israel, is unique in many ways.
It will be the second time the tournament is held in two countries and the first time a single country hosts two consecutive European Championships. The 35th European Championships was staged in Split. This January, Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and Dubrovnik welcome the top 16 European male water polo teams at the 36th continental championships.
The list of the participating teams is the same as in Split, but the competition formula is new. The teams are split into two divisions.
All eight Division 1 teams will advance to the knockout round, while the top four Division 2 teams will have a chance to battle for the medals after the group stage.
The top two teams from groups A and B will directly qualify for the quarterfinals, with the third and fourth-placed teams participating in the crossover round against the top two teams from groups C and D.
In addition to three medals, four World Championships berths will be allocated during the tournament and one team will qualify for the Olympic Games.
With eight European teams having played in the semifinals of major competitions in the post-Covid era, and seven having won medals since 2021, it’s challenging to predict the top contenders for the medals and tickets for Doha and Paris.
Almost every team that will play in Division 1 has reached the semifinals at least once in the past three seasons, except Georgia. Serbia, the Olympic champion, which will start from Division 2, is the seventh of the mentioned teams that reached the podium.
There are many favorites, and the audience will have the opportunity to see many top water polo players in action, even though the world champion, Hungary, presents a refreshed team. While several Hungarian stars will be absent from the championship, many standout players who were not part of their national teams last summer are returning to the scene. Some excellent players are, after a pause, again on the rosters of Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, France, and Serbia.
The tournament begins tomorrow, with Division 1 matches and Division 2 contests starting on Friday.
2024 European Men’s Championships (January 4 – 16), Preview
Group A (Dubrovnik)
I Participating teams: Croatia (1st place in 2022), Spain (3rd place in 2022), France (6th place in 2022), Montenegro (7th place in 2022).
Let’s start this preview with the neighbors – Croatia and Montenegro. There are a few things that these two teams have in common. Unlike their rivals in the group, both have won the gold medal at the European Championships,
Croatia and Montenegro have the same primary goal. They are the only two European powerhouses that still need to qualify for the World Championships in Doha. That is something that both teams practically must achieve. Neither Croatia nor Montenegro have missed the World Championships since their independence.
But, three World Championships berths are available, and six European teams have already qualified. So, earning the tickets for Doha shouldn’t be mission impossible for the two excellent teams. However, both teams have higher goals than securing themselves spots at the World Championships.
The head coaches of both teams (Croatia’s Ivica Tucak and Montenegro’s Vladimir Gojkovic) called up the experienced players who came from retirement to help their teams achieve their goals.Luka Loncar returned to the Croatian team, while Drasko Brguljan rejoined Montenegro. Neither has played for the national teams since the Tokyo Olympics.
Croatia is one of the big favorites as the host and reigning champion. The hosts aim to continue the tradition. Croatia won two gold medals at the Europeans, both as hosts and will try to make a “hat trick” in front of the home crowd. The fans’ support will be Croatia’s extra player, but the home team had excellent aces on the roster, which is a strong trump card. The Croats finished 9th in Fukuoka last year and want to bounce back after the failure in Japan. They will be stronger than in Fukuoka. Besides Loncar, Loren Fatovic, who missed the summer of 2023 due to injury, is back. The first match will be the best possible test of the home team’s capabilities. Tomorrow, Croatia will face Spain.
Montenegro hasn’t played in the semifinals of a big competition since 2021. Two and a half years ago, it won the gold medal in the World League. But, as usual, nobody mustn’t underestimate Montenegro. The process of the rejuvenation of the team has come to an end. Drasko Brguljan brings a new dose of experience. Montenegro played well in the preparation period. If they continue in the same way, the semifinals won’t be far from them.
As mentioned in the article’s intro, eight European teams played in the semifinals of the major competitions in the post-Covid era. However, only one team has managed to reach the top 4 in all competitions since the Tokyo Olympics, which is Spain. Spain has been a prominent force in water polo for years and has been the most successful nation in the last six years, having played in the semifinals 11 times and winning nine medals. Although Spain has excelled in various competitions, it has never won the gold medal in the European championship. Spain has a skilled team with exceptional players in each position, led by Felipe Perrone, one of the world’s best players and one of the oldest participants in the European Championships. Other excellent players include Granados, Munarriz, Aguirre, and many others. The team will be missing Martin Famera due to an injury.
Last but not least – France. Since 2022, the hosts of the Olympic Games have been proving they were on the right track by winning 4th place in the 2022 World League, 6th place in the European Championships in the same year, and 6th place at the World Championships. Like Croatia and Montenegro, France has brought back an experienced ace to the team. Michael Bodegas, the world champion with Italy in 2019, will play for France for the first time after ten years. The results in the preparation games don’t promise. Italy blew France away in the last test in Cagliari (20:3) last week. However, the French could see what they were doing wrong in a series of losses in the past two weeks and fix all mistakes to do their best at the Europeans.
Day 1 (January 4): Montenegro – France (17:00), Spain – Croatia (20:15). The opening ceremony is scheduled for 19:45
CO MATCH 1: 4A – 1C
COM 2: 4B – 1D
COM3: 3B – 2D
CO4: 3A – 2C.
The winners of the crossover matches will qualify for the quarterfinals. The formula of the Round of 8 is as follows:
1B – Winner CO1
1A – Winner CO2
2A – Winner CO3
2B – Winner CO4
The winners go to the semifinals, the losers to the 5th-8th classification, the losers of the crossover matches will play in the 9th -12th place classification,etc.
Group B (Zagreb)
I Participating teams: Hungary (2nd in 2022), Italy (4th in 2022), Greece (5th in 2022), Georgia (8th in 2022).
The finalists of the 2023 World Championships, Hungary and Greece, play in Group B. The encounter between these two nations is scheduled for Thursday.
Still, the match Hungary – Greece won’t be a replay of the Fukuoka final because the two teams arrived in Croatia with different ambitions.
Hungary’s participation in the 36th European Championships will be an experiment by Hungary’s head coach Zsolt Varga. Seven debutants will represent Hungary in Croatia. Younger players have an opportunity to show if they deserve a place on the teams that will play at the World Championships and the Olympic Games. It’s sure that they are highly motivated. Therefore, Hungary remains in a circle of favorites despite an extensive rejuvenation.
Greece qualified for the World Championships and the Olympic Games, as well as Hungary. But, the Greeks will play with all its stars and target the only medal missing in their treasury. Compared to the World Championships, Angelos Vlachopoulos is back. Greece has played at the Europeans 18 times and has participated regularly since 1989. But it reached the semifinals only twice (4th place in 1999 and 2016). The time for the first European medal may have come.
Italy is one of the most successful nations in the history of the European Championships and has missed only two tournaments (1926 and 1931), but it has waited for a new medal for ten years. The “Settebello” finished 3rd in Budapest in 2014. The Italians come to Croatia with the same team that played in Fukuoka, which says everything about their ambitions – to win a medal and qualify for the Olympic Games.
Georgia debuted at the European Championships in 2014 and has achieved better results from tournament to tournament. The Georgians won 8th place in Split. For the first time, they didn’t have to play in the qualifications and will start the 36th European Championships in Division 1. But Georgia still hasn’t defeated a European powerhouse, even though they made trouble to a few big teams. We’ll see if their experienced team with several naturalized players can surprise a favorite in Zagreb.
Day 1 (January 4): Georgia – Italy (17:00), Hungary – Greece (19:00).
Group C (Zagreb)
I Participating teams: Serbia (9th place in 2022), (Israel 12th place), Germany (13th place in 2022), Malta (14th place in 2022),
Olympic champion Serbia, the five-time European gold medalist, finished 9th in Split 15 months ago, and because of that, it will start the tournament from Division 1. The Serbs won 4th place at the 2023 World Championships, thus proving they didn’t belong to “the lower house” of the European water polo. However, returning to the top 8 will not be easy. Serbia, with returnee Dusan Mandic, Nikola Jaksic, Strahinja Rasovic, etc, is a team that can go high, but it will have a demanding task already in the crossover round.
Anyway, Serbia is the heavy favorite for the top spot in Group C.
The Olympic champion’s toughest opponent in the group phase will be Germany, which wants to forget Split as soon as possible (like Serbia). The Germans finished in 13th place, which is their worst result in 32 appearances at the European Championships. Recently, Germany defeated Serbia at the preparation tournament in Budapest, but the Serbs were without a few key players. The result of the preparation game may not indicate what can happen in the encounter between the same teams in Split, but it encourages Germany.
Israel and Malta made history at the 2022 European Championships. Israel recorded one win in its debut at the Europeans. Malta, which has played at the ECH four times, achieved its first-ever win in Split. Both teams defeated Slovenia (Israel did it in the group stage, and Malta in the classification round). However, they aren’t in the same weight category as Serbia and Germany.
Day 1 (January 5): Serbia – Israel (17:00), Germany – Malta (19:00).
Group D (Dubrovnik)
I Participating teams: Romania (10th in 2022), Netherlands (11th in 2022), Slovakia (15th in 2022), Slovenia (16th in 2022)
There is no clear favorite for 1st place in Group D. Still, the Netherlands, and Romania are closer to the top spot than the Slovakians and Slovenians. The Dutch team is the only one in this group that won a medal at the European Championships. But, it happened in the first half of the previous century. The Netherlands became the continental champion in 1950 and won bronze 12 years before.
Romania hasn’t won a medal at the European Championships, but it can cause headaches for the favorites.
Slovakia and Slovenia enter the tournament with slim chances of reaching the crossover round, but if one of these teams finishes ahead of Romania or the Netherlands, it won’t be a huge surprise.
Day 1 (January 5): Slovakia – Slovenia (17:45), Netherlands – Romania (20:15).
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