The USA retained their women’s water polo crown at Rio 2016, while world champions Serbia defeated neighbours Croatia to win the men’s title for the first time.
The USA’s women’s water polo team capped a successful title defence with a 12-5 defeat of Italy in the final at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, maintaining their record of having made it onto every podium since the event first appeared on the programme at Sydney 2000. Unbeaten in the group phase, both teams then eased through the knockout rounds, with the Italians dispatching China 12-7 in the quarter-finals and Russia 12-9 in the semis, and the holders beating Brazil 13-3 and then Hungary 14-10.
The Americans, who are reigning world champions, led the gold medal match from start to finish. Victorious in every major tournament they have contested since early 2014, the defending champions were never seriously threatened by the Athens 2004 gold medallists. One of the four USA players who also won gold at London 2012, Courtney Mathewson opened the scoring. Though Federica Radicchi levelled for the Italians, they struggled thereafter to subdue the powerful US attack.
A commanding 4-1 ahead at the end of the first quarter, the Olympic title holders were 5-3 to the good at half-time, and moved even further ahead thanks to goals from Kiley Neushul and Rachel Fattal early in the third quarter. Ashleigh Johnson then saved a penalty from Roberta Bianconi to all but seal the fate of the Italians, who had no way back into the game after starting the fourth and final quarter five goals adrift. In running out 12-5 winners, the all-conquering Americans broke the record for the most goals scored in an Olympic women’s final and also posted the highest winning margin for a final.
Taking third place on the podium were Russia, who edged European champions Hungary 7-6 in a tense penalty shootout to complete a 19-18 win and consign their opponents to fourth place for the third Games running.
In a thrilling high-scoring match that saw the lead and possession change hands continuously, the Hungarians looked to have one hand on the bronze when they moved into an 11-9 lead in the final quarter. The Russians levelled the scores, however, and though Rita Keszthelyi converted a late penalty to re-establish Hungary’s lead, Anastasia Simanovich fired home with just one second remaining to take the tie into a shootout that her side would ultimately edge.
Serbia take a long-awaited men’s gold
Famed for their tight defence and powerful shooting, Serbia clinched their first Olympic water polo gold, defeating reigning champions and arch rivals Croatia 11-7 in the final. The win crowned a remarkable recovery by the world champions, who came perilously close to an early exit in the group phase, after opening their campaign with two draws and a defeat. Regaining their poise, the Serbs then secured victories in their next two matches to squeeze through in fourth place. Croatia experienced fewer problems in their group, going through in second place after winning three games and losing to Spain and France.
On reaching the knockout phase, both sides shifted up a gear. The world champions beat Spain 10-7 in the last eight and then London 2012 runners-up Italy 10-8 in the semis, while the Croatians disposed of Brazil 10-6 before ending Montenegro’s run with a 12-8 win. Though both teams adopted an attacking approach in the duel for gold, it was the Serbs who made the most of their opportunities, with Dusan Mandic racking up four goals and Branislav Mitrovic stymieing the Croatians at the other end. A bronze medallist at the last two Olympics, Filip Filipovic added a brace to his side’s tally and was later named the most valuable player of the tournament. Speaking after Serbia’s eighth straight tournament win, a run that also includes the European Championships and has now been capped with the biggest title of them all, Filipovic said: “We’ve been pursuing this objective since the start of our careers. We’ve trained hard and we’ve been through a lot. This is a team with really formidable and very talented players.”
Gracious in defeat, Croatia coach Ivica Tudak acknowledged the superiority of the new Olympic champions: “We tried everything we could against them but they were just too physical and strong, as the result shows. We have a very young team right now, and I believe that 10 or 11 of the players will be back in Tokyo in four years’ time. I’m very optimistic about our chances in Japan.”We’ve been pursuing this objective since the start of our careers. We’ve trained hard and we’ve been through a lot. This is a team with really formidable and very talented players.Filip Filipovic Serbia
In the match for bronze, Italy beat Montenegro 12-10, with Matteo Aicardi’s late strike sealing the medal for the Italians and leaving their opponents in fourth place for the third Games running. “We deserved that medal,” said Italy’s Stefano Tempesti, who was appearing in his fifth consecutive Games since Sydney 2000. “We weren’t expected to win because Montenegro are a great side with some fantastic players. But we stuck together and played as a team, and that’s what brought us the medal in the end.”