Title holders Spain set up epic final with world champions and hosts Netherlands

2024 European Water Polo Championship

The 2024 European Championship final will be a repeat of the 2023 World Championships gold medal game after Spain and the Netherlands got the better of Greece and Italy respectively in Thursday’s semifinals. The Netherlands triumphed on penalties in Fukuoka to be crowned champions of the world, and will be hoping a loud and noisy Eindhoven home crowd can help them ruin Spain’s dream of winning a third consecutive title. Today’s semifinal losers will fight for the bronze in a shootout that will also see the winner claim a ticket to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

1st-4th semifinal results

Netherlands 7-6 Italy
Spain 13-5 Greece

5th-8th semifinals
Croatia 10-12 France
Great Britain 5-21 Hungary

Credit: European Aquatics

Twelve years ago in Eindhoven’s Pieter van den Hoogenband Swimming Stadium at the 2012 European Championships, Italy knocked the hosts Netherlands out in the quarterfinals and then went on to win their fifth European gold.

This time, in the semifinals against the same opponents, the Dutch team, backed by another loud and noisy capacity crowd, didn’t go home disappointed, but their nerves were shredded after a tense 7-6 victory.

The opening two quarters were tight affairs, with both sides fluffing their lines in attack, as neither side could find any real rhythm going forward.

“I think us trying to be patient resulted in us not being creative enough and not very active in offence, and that\’s what made us struggle in the beginning,” commented the Netherlands’ Bente Rogge afterwards.

Simone Van De Kraats drew first blood, firing in a penalty in the third minute, but Domitilla Picozzi levelled for 1-1 just before the end of the first.

Credit: European Aquatics

In the second, Lola Moolhuijzen edged the hosts back in front, but goals from Silvia Avegno and Valeria Palmieri sent Italy ahead (2-3), before Sabrina Van Der Sloot tied for 3-3 after the Netherlands were awarded another penalty.

The third quarter was just as nail-biting for both sets of fans, ending again 2-2, with Maartje Keuning and Van De Kraats on target for the Dutch, and Giulia Viacava and Dafne Bettini for Italy.

With the scores locked at 5-5, the final eight minutes were on a knife-edge, but the homes fans were soon back on their feet when Keuning fired in for 6-5 on extra.

The stakes were high and tension clear, as the next few minutes saw both sides struggle in possession.

Passes went astray, shots went wide, so cool heads were needed, and the Netherlands captain Van der Sloot stood up, firing in from deep to put the Dutch two clear (7-5) with 1:54 left to play.

Roberta Bianconi instantly replied on extra to set up a nervy last minute, but the Netherlands were able to close out the game to send their fans home in an ecstatic mood and dreaming of seeing them win gold on Saturday.

“Of course, there were some nerves, as it was a sold-out pool and it\’s a home crowd, so everybody wants to play their best,” added Bente Rogge, who feels the togetherness of her team also helped earn the right to contest the final.

“It was a tough game, but we have so much faith in this team, and so much trust, that even if we don\’t play well, we still can win.

“Spain are an amazing team, so we will have to prepare well. I think if you look at the results they\’ve put up so far in this tournament, they\’ve been very confident and playing very strong. I think it will be a fun final.”

The bronze medal game, meanwhile, will be a shootout for the only Olympic ticket on offer in Eindhoven, as the Netherlands and Spain have already secured their safe passage to Paris.

Credit: European Aquatics

An outstanding defensive performance was the foundation for Spain’s impressive 13-5 victory against Greece in Thursday’s first semifinal.

Miki Oca’s formidable squad are through to their fifth European final and are now just one win away from claiming a third successive European crown.

“I think our defence was the most impressive thing tonight,” commented Spain goalkeeper Martina Terre after the win.

“We made a really good game in defence and obviously in attack too. I feel so grateful to be a part of this team.

“It\’s my second European final, and I’m so grateful to play alongside these players, we’re going to be ready for the final.”

In contrast, Greece’s Eleni Xenaki didn’t hold back when asked to describe her team’s performance.

“It was a disaster for us,” she said. “We played against one of the best teams in the world, and if we wanted to have a good result, we had to play hard from the beginning.

“We didn\’t play at all, but OK, we now will go for the third place.”

Credit: European Aquatics

Terre was sensational in the Spanish goal, saving 11 from 16, while her counterpart Chrysoula Diamantopoulou only managed seven from 20.

With such an impressive defence, Judith Forca – the top scorer at the previous two World Championships – was able to operate without pressure, firing in three times to top score for Spain and take her tournament tally to 13.

Against Greece, Spain again started strong, racing into a 4-1 lead after the first, which is a familiar story as it was the fifth time they’d led by three or more in the opening eight minutes in Eindhoven.

Greece regrouped a little in the second and matched Spain for 1-1, with both defences on top, but the lead stayed at three (5-2).

In the third, Spain continued to hold firm, but Greece crumbled, conceding a four-goal rush to put the defending champions firmly in control at 9-2 with 2:53 left to play in the quarter.

Xenaki did cut the gap to six (9-3) before the final break, but by then Spain were dominating so much they even went on to win the last period 4-2.

The defeat condemns the runners-up in Split to the bronze medal game and means Greece’s elusive 39-year hunt for European gold continues.

It was Spain’s fifth successive victory at these Championships, but the big question is can they make it six to become the fourth women’s team – after the Netherlands, Italy and Russia – to win three consecutive titles?

Credit: European Aquatics

In Thursday’s opening 5th-8th classification semifinal, Croatia tried to keep up with France throughout, but fell short at the end 10-12.

The win for France means they can continue their preparations for this summer’s Olympics at next month’s World Championships in Qatar.

Croatia, meanwhile, will get a second chance to qualify for Doha on Saturday, when they take on Great Britain in the 7th/8th classification final.

Against Croatia, France maintained the upper hand after an even first quarter (3-3).

Pulling away slightly for 5-6 at the turnaround, after twice leading by two in the second, France started to open up some daylight in the third.

The lead stretched to four (6-10) when Camelia Bouloukbachi scored from 2m with 1:18 left in the quarter, but Iva Rozic cut the deficit to three seconds before the buzzer.  

Jelena Butic hit three in the final eight minutes and the score was briefly 9-10, but France scored two of their own to ensure the victory.

Credit: European Aquatics

After suffering a heavy loss against the Netherlands in the quarterfinals, Great Britain received further punishment from 2020 Olympic bronze medallists Hungary in the day’s second 5th-8th semifinal.

The result was never in doubt (5-21) and all one-way traffic from the start, with Hungary captain Rita Keszthelyi causing the most damage, top scoring with five.

It was a total breeze for Hungary, but Great Britain did rotate a number of their key players, mainly centre forward Toula Falvey, for the majority of the game, as they kept one eye firmly on the 7th/8th final with Croatia – and that final ticket for Doha.

Credit: European Aquatics

In Thursday’s opening game, Germany clinched 11th place after a stunning last quarter powered them to a 15-12 victory against Czechia.

Trailing 3-4 after the first, then 6-8 at the turnaround, Germany were always chasing the game as they attempted to reel Czechia in, the gap even stood at four (3-7) midway through the second.

Germany did level for 8-8 in the middle of the third, but three late goals for Czechia from Rozalie Fugnerova, Barbora Kilianova and Josefina Hola, and one for Germany’s Greta Tadday kept the lead at two (9-11) going into the final period.

During a six-goal blitz, Germany took the lead for the first time (13-12) with 3:24 remaining and then added two more to seal the win.

Credit: European Aquatics

Later, Israel took 9th place after winning a thrilling encounter with Serbia 12-13.

After falling behind in the early exchanges, it was 7-4 at the long break, Israel turned on the style in the last two quarters, winning those 2-4 and 3-5, but Serbia almost forced a shootout in the fourth when Anja Svec levelled for 12-12 shortly before the last minute.

Maria Mia Bogachenko was the hero though, firing in her fourth of the game with 45 seconds left to take the win.

Afterwards, Israel captain Shunit Strugo, who turned 37 on Sunday, discussed her team’s overall performance in Eindhoven.

“We wanted to finish in the first eight and, of course, to qualify for the World Championships by being in the first seven, but we lost to Great Britain.

“We didn\’t plan it, but after such a game, you need to continue and to fight in the next games, and we did that by winning the next two games.

“I believe this team has a nice future, and I hope that we will do better in the next competition. I really believe in this team.”

When asked about her own plans for the future, and whether the Serbia game had been her final game for the national team, Strugo replied, “I don’t have a complete answer to that.

“My plan was to play another World Championships, but my plan changed… so I will have to leave this answer to later.”