Five to watch in Zagreb and Dubrovnik

As the continent’s greatest players arrive in Croatia for the 2024 European Championships, we take a look at five stars to watch out for in Zagreb and Dubrovnik.

Credit to: European Aquatics

STYLIANOS ARGYROPOULOS, GREECE

One of the best all-round players in Europe, let alone in the world, Stylianos Argyropoulos is definitely a key to Greece’s recent successes.

Never before have they managed to claim medals at majors in three consecutive years but they grabbed silver at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, bronze at the 2022 Worlds in Budapest and finished runner-up at the Worlds in Fukuoka in 2023.

Despite having already secured an Olympic berth by making the final in Fukuoka, the Greeks arrived in Zagreb with a full roster, including the one and only Argyropoulos.

They have all the reasons to field their very best players because although they have enjoyed recent success, they’ve never made it to the top; and one would barely believe it, but the Greek men’s team is yet to win a medal at the Europeans.

Argyropoulos & Co. are ready to rock with ‘Argy’ – as he is nicknamed by his team-mates – set to be the engine of the team once more. There is no way to outpower him, thanks to his massively-built muscles, and it’s still challenging to keep up with him as he is a really fast swimmer.

Agile in position-play, he is also a master of shot-making from any distance and angle, he could let backhander blasts fly from the perimeter as well but can cause trouble in the centre-forward position and his defending skills are also exceptional.

LUKA BUKIC, CROATIA

Credit to: European Aquatics

Luka Bukic’s destiny to become a top-class water polo player may have been determined right upon his birth.

His father is a living legend of Croatian water polo.

Perica Bukic is a two-time Olympic champion and amassed European Cup triumphs during his brilliant playing career which saw him playing for Zagreb’s top club Mladost.

Luka also started his career in the capital, but his outstanding skills soon landed him a contract with Italy’s giant Recco, then he joined Croatia’s other stand-out team Jug in Dubrovnik.

Turning 30 soon, by now he has all the experience one needs to be considered a world-class player.

Bukic is definitely one of those greats who has a specific sense for launching counters, he is one of the best in scoring from fast-breaks but also has a gentle touch to finish off man-ups or tear up defences by finely paced drives.

Together with his team-mates, he is very much looking to retain the title the Croats claimed at Split 2022 – back than it was ‘just’ a European triumph, this time it would also mean Olympic qualification.

Bukic Jr. also has some silverware at home: an Olympic silver from Rio 2016 plus a silver and a bronze from the 2013 and 2015 Worlds, though he painfully missed the golden run in 2017, so he needs to step up to match his father’s tally.

He has a lot more fine years ahead to do so.

GIACOMO CANNELLA, ITALY

Credit to: European Aquatics

If you look for cannon-like shots, look no further than Giacomo Cannella’s rockets – the Italian has one of the most powerful shots in the field and those also come with the utmost precision.

There is a lot more though, than his scoring skills, which make him a top player both in the world’s best club Recco and in the Italian national team.

Giacomo is a really great team-player who plays with discipline, the necessary aggression and reads the game really well.

This complete set has already earned him a series of titles, including two Champions League wins with Recco, a World Championship silver medal in 2022 and a World League title in the same year and a World Cup silver from last summer and he was also voted the MVP of the 2022 Champions League Final Eight.

The Settebello, as Italy’s men’s team is nicknamed at home, is set to bounce back from the disappointments in recent years – despite some really great performances on given days at major tournaments, they left the most important meets empty-handed (with the exception of the 2022 Worlds), like the 2021 Olympics, the 2022 Europeans and the 2023 Worlds.

ADAM NAGY, HUNGARY

Credit to: European Aquatics

One of the smartest and most intelligent players around, Adam Nagy may come up big in Zagreb (especially since his name means Big in English).

A key member of Hungary’s world title-winning side in Fukuoka and the country’s No. 1 team Ferencvaros (also a major player in the Champions League), Nagy now has the chance to shine after delivering the ‘grey job’ perfectly in last year.

This is how his coach Zsolt Varga calls the less-recognised parts some players add to the team’s performance.

Swimming a lot, showing up in defence where clearing is needed badly, making key passes in front to set up the star shooters – these are all the small pieces the grey-work is about, and no one is doing that better than Adam Nagy.

Still, from time to time, it turns out that he has a lot more to offer as he is a master of shotmaking.

And in Zagreb Nagy can get into the spotlight as Hungary fields a really young team at these Europeans and he is expected to be one of the leaders at both ends of the pool.

With all his skills, experience and winning mentality, as well as his unbreakable calmness, he is well set to play this role.

His contribution will be essential since the current squad features one returning veteran Balazs Harai with 266 caps to his name – and the remaining 14 players have 276 appearances in the national team in total with eight youngsters having seven or less apiece.

In contrast, the seven star players who could take some rest before the demanding season and have now restarted training in Budapest, have 1227 combined caps.

FELIPE PERRONE, SPAIN

Credit to: European Aquatics

He is like the best wines – aging just makes him better. It’s somewhat unbelievable that this legendary player with Brazilian origins is arguably one of the best in the world at the age of 38.

A lot of youngsters hitting the pools at these Europeans were not even born when Felipe Perrone made his World Championship debut in Fukuoka in 2001, back then playing for Brazil.

Twenty-two years later he was still part of the show and came away with the bronze medal from the same city, now as a member of the Spanish team.

He is a player who is a joy to watch, any time, anywhere. Well, indeed he turned up at a lot of places around Europe and the world.

Besides playing for most of his prime years in Barceloneta, he was also a celebrated member of Recco of Italy and Jug Dubrovnik of Croatia. And it’s not an overstatement as he was instrumental in winning the Champions League title with all three clubs – with Recco in 2012, with Barceloneta in 2015 and with Jug in 2016.

He reads the game as no-one else, he has the sense and the speed to make one-on-one counters but can also finish off man-ups and do great drives to break the defensive lines and he is one of the best delivery-man from the 5m line, barely missing penalties.

After a series of lost finals – 2018 Europeans, 2019 Worlds, 2020 Europeans – he finally led Spain to a grand victory at the 2022 World Championships in Budapest and added a World Cup gold to his tally last summer, plus bronze medals from the 2022 Europeans and the 2023 Worlds.

The last one was slightly disappointing as they lost to Hungary in the semis with a last-gasp goal but team Spain has incredible depth and individual quality and is well set to make up the missed Olympic qualification here in Croatia.

And at the end they might even grab the European title – something that has eluded the Spaniards so far.