Croatia hunting third European crown as tournament hosts

Credit: LEN

Croatia have claimed the title of European champions twice since becoming an independent country – in 2010 and 2022 – when they were also hosts of the continent’s showcase water polo event. With the men’s tournament heading to Zagreb and Dubrovnik in 2024, Croatia will be aiming to make it a hat-trick of wins on home soil.

Croatia have experienced a lot of ups and downs in recent years. While they staged a historical run at the World Championships between 2005 and 2022 – reaching the semis at nine straight editions and claiming seven medals in a row (2007-2019), an unmatched feat – last July in Fukuoka they hit an unprecedented low as they failed to make the quarter-finals and ended up in 9th place.

This low came almost a year after their remarkable triumph at the last European Championships in Split.

The 2022 tournament was an unforgettable event, one of the best organised editions ever, in a perfect environment and in front of a loud and passionate crowd of 9,000 people who pushed the Croatians all the way to the top of the podium.

Just like in 2010, when they took gold for the first time, then in Zagreb.

It means the Croatians are 2/2 at home editions – so no doubt head coach Ivica Tucak was delighted to learn that after their misery in Japan, they have a chance to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games at home (as European champions, or the best-ranked non-qualified team).

“Personally, I was very pleased when I heard the news that Croatia would host one more time a major competition, the European Championship in our country,” Tucak told European Aquatics.

“Due to the situation in Israel, the Croatian Water Polo Federation, with the strong support of the Government of the Republic of Croatia, managed to find a way to bring here this extremely important competition.

“On the sports side, we will do everything to achieve a top result, and with the help of the fans in Dubrovnik and Zagreb, I believe we will succeed.”

Credit: LEN

Of course, it’s not going to be a copy-and-pasted showcase from September 2022, as the hosts had several years to prepare to stage that great event at the state-of-the-art Spaladium Arena.

This time, the last-minute re-arrangement means Croatia will offer their two best-known pools, SP Mladost in Zagreb and the famous Gruz in Dubrovnik, sites of many memorable European cup ties.

“Having the biggest European water polo competition in our country is a great honour, a wonderful opportunity to show off in front of our fans,” said Tucak.

“It may not be possible to repeat the spectacle from Split 2022 in terms of the number of supporters, as 9,000 fans followed us each night there, and now we will play in significantly smaller venues, but that does not mean it will not be beautiful and noisy.

“Being the hosts of the competition, playing in front of our audience, I don\’t consider that a burden, but an incentive. That\’s exactly what I told my players at the beginning of our preparations.”

Credit: LEN

In 2022, the Croatian team may have looked a little anxious in the early stages, but once they fought back to tie 5-5 with Greece and progress as group winners, they really got going.

They managed to beat world runners-up Italy in the semis and won a fantastic battle with Hungary in the final.

“We now have one more experience, from Split,” Tucak recalled. “We were really impressed there at the beginning, with the kind of support from the audience, turning up in great numbers.

“It was something many of my players had never experienced in their lives, it was unique.

“That\’s why there was a little hesitation, tension during the first couple of matches, but over time it disappeared.

“Now, with all the lessons learned last September, I think playing at home again won’t be, rather it shouldn\’t be, a burden for us at all.”

Credit: LEN

As well as the European crown, Croatia are targeting an Olympic ticket, and qualification for February’s World Championships in Doha.

Three more places for Qatar are up for grabs in Croatia, and among the powerhouses only Croatia and Montenegro have this task still to tick, so adding the Worlds to their busy 2024 schedule shouldn’t be a problem.

Doha is the last stage in the Olympic qualification pathway, where four more tickets will be booked.

Tucak and his players will surely want to have a smoother path to the Games than they had before Tokyo.

Three times they were a single goal away from making the cut. First in the 2019 World League final where they lost to Serbia 12-11.

Then in the semis at the 2019 Worlds they lost to Spain 6-5. Third try, Europeans, semis – losing again to Spain, 9-8. And at the end they got to the brink of elimination at the Olympic Qualification tournament in Rotterdam.

After missing their first chance, losing a shootout to Montenegro in the semis, they met Russia in a do-or-die encounter for the bronze medal.

They were unable to beat them in regular time, so it all went down to penalties once more where after a couple of misses the Russians had a shot to win the shootout.

Incoming goalie, sitting through the match on the bench, Toni Popadic saved it – and the nation.

They needed a lot more buried penalties, but finally the Croatians won the 30-shot thriller and qualified for the Olympics.

Surely, they don’t want to relive anything similar again. As Tucak put it: “Expectations? All of us are certainly thinking about Paris and the Olympic Games, for which we need to qualify, but at the European Championships in Dubrovnik and Zagreb, our primary goal is a medal.

“We\’ll see if it will be gold, which would take us directly to Paris, or maybe silver, bronze, which could also take us to the Olympic Games. But the goal is a medal, and I am looking forward to the championships in front of our home crowd.”

The men’s event kicks off on 4th January and all the matches will be streamed live on Eurovision Sport’s website and app.

In the new format with two divisions, Croatia will face world bronze medallists Spain, arch-rivals Montenegro and Olympic hosts France in the group stage in Dubrovnik.

A full schedule can be found by clicking here.