Serbia's world champion men's water polo team defeated arch rivals and defending champions Croatia 11-7 to win their first Olympic gold medal in the sport.
In a water polo final marked by determined play in front of both goals, Serbia showed superiority in finishing chances. Dusan Mandic scored four times, while goalkeeper Branislav Mitrovic's impressive blocks kept Croatia out. Two goals came from Filip Filipovic, a veteran of two past Serbian Olympic teams which each won bronze. He was elected the most valuable player of the tournament.
Filipovic said his team, known for both stellar defence and great shooting, was probably the best ever assembled in the sport: “Let’s say we wanted this from the beginning of our careers. We trained so hard, and we suffered so much. We really have some great talent and some magnificent players.”
This was Serbia's eighth successive tournament title, including European championships. The team finally proved its dominance on the most prestigious stage. Coach Dejan Savic had said the team was under tremendous pressure to bring home the gold: “We have won everything else, now we want this.”
Croatia’s coach Ivica Tudak admitted that Serbia were the better team: “We tried everything we had against them but they were just too physical and strong. The result shows that. Right now we have a very young team. I believe that 10 or 11 players on this team will play in Tokyo. I’m very optimistic about our chances in Tokyo.”
Early in the 12-team tournament, it looked like the unthinkable could happen to Serbia, who ran the risk of elimination before the knock-out rounds. They began with two draws and a loss. Serbia steadied their play in the later rounds with five straight wins on their way to the title.
The Serbian victory came as the country’s athletes also compete for gold in women’s volleyball and men's basketball finals. They have already captured bronze in women’s basketball, defeating France.
London finalists Italy take bronze
In the bronze medal men's match Italy, who won silver at London 2012, defeated Montenegro 12-10. Italy needed Matteo Aicardi’s last-minute goal to seal the victory as they missed a penalty. It was Montenegro’s third successive fourth-place finish at the Olympic Games.
“We deserve this medal. We won against all the odds because Montenegro is a great team with lots of strong individuals. But we played as a group, as a team, and that's why we won this medal,” said Italy’s Stefano Tempesti, who has participated in five Olympics including Rio, starting with Sydney 2000.
“It means we are at the top of water polo, even if we changed seven players from London. I think we deserved it. When you finish the Olympic Games with victories, with a medal, it's always happiness,” coach Alessandro Campagna added. The bronze was Italy's eighth Olympic men's water polo medal. Only Hungary and USA have won more.