Midway through the trip from Europe to the Far East, Croatia started its final phase of the preparations for the World Championships in Fukuoka.
On Monday, the European champions traveled to California to participate in joint training sessions with Team USA. A friendly match between the two teams will take place in a few days.
Last year, a new Croatian team took the stage. After the Tokyo Olympics, several Croatian aces retired from the national team. However, the generational switch didn’t negatively affect the results. Croatia played in two semifinals last year. It finished 4th at the World Championships and won European gold in front of the home crowd in Split.
Commenting on the results in the last year, Croatia’s most experienced player and captain, Ivan Krapic says:
“Many teams went through a change of generations after the Tokyo Olympics – some more, some less. We really changed a lot of players. But the most important thing is that we remained in the circle of the world’s top teams. The new players who came to replace those who retired were maybe unknown to the general public until last year. However, these guys have been preparing with the national team for years. They are familiar with the work, behavior, and everything the national team requires. They were waiting for their chance, and they got it last summer.”
The results show that the players who became regular national team members last summer made the most of the given chance. Some of them are the pillars of the team now.
Let’s jump back to the present. Croatia is the only of the big favorites that missed the World Cup Final in Los Angeles, which may be an advantage or a disadvantage in the preparations for Japan. The Croats didn’t have an opportunity to test their shape at a quality tournament. On the other hand, since the start of the summer, the Croats have been completely focused on Fukuoka.
“We had ambitions to play in the World Cup Final. But we lost to Italy and Hungary in Division 1 in Zagreb. However, the time will tell if the absence from the World Cup Final will be a handicap.”
The European champion didn’t participate in the World Cup Final but has played several friendly matches against quality opponents in the last few weeks. It faced Italy twice in Ostia and Rome (a 7:6 win and a 7:8 loss) and played in a triangle tournament in Herceg Novi, where it was better than France (9:8) and Montenegro (13:9).
“The results in those matches, of course, weren’t in the foreground. But, some indications in our play tell us that we are on the right track and that we should continue working at this pace until Fukuoka. We still have enough time to fine-tune some things in our play. I hope everything will be as it should be by the start of the World Championships.”
Tiny differences between favorites
Ivan Krapic, who won gold with Croatia at the 2017 World Championships, doesn’t want to single a team or a few teams as the most serious medal contenders. He underlines that the fact that the number of favorites raised is good for water polo.
“The circle of favorites has never been wider than it is today. Seven – eight teams rightfully hope for a medal, which is great for our sport. It would be wrong to single someone out now – when the differences between all those teams are minimal.”
The crucial day for Croatia in the first week of the tournament will be July 19. It will face Hungary in the 2nd round of Group C. It’s almost certain that the winner of that encounter will secure 1st place in the group (the other two participants are Japan and Argentina). The winner will qualify for the quarterfinals and avoid a match against a 3rd-placed team from a tough Group D (Spain, Serbia,Montenegro, South Africa) in the crossover round.
It won’t be easy against Hungary, but it won’t be easy for them either
Last year, Croatia defeated Hungary in the final of the European Championships in Split. Six months later, the Hungarians beat the Croats in Division 1 of the World Cup.
Both teams have suffered small but significant changes in the last 10 months. Croatia is without injured Loren Fatovic. As for Hungary, Denes Varga returned to the team.
“Hungary is certainly a team that is targeting the highest step of the podium, not only because Denes is back. There are also Vamos and Harai, who also didn’t compete at the Europeans in Split, and the group of excellent young players. They are a really great team, but I think we are, too. So, as much as it won’t be easy for us, it won’t be easy for them either”, Ivan Krapic concludes at the end of the interview with Total Waterpolo.