Water polo: Italy and the United States at the top of their game on the road to Tokyo 2020
A well-established hierarchy was maintained in water polo at the 2019 World Aquatics Championships held in Gwangju, Republic of Korea. In the men's competition, European teams continued to dominate, with Italy taking the gold by beating Spain 10-5 in the final. In the women's division, the United States, who won gold medals at the Olympic Games London 2012 and Rio 2016, maintained their rule by taking a third consecutive world title.
Less than a year away from the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Italy are in pole position. By defeating Spain 10-5 in the finals of the Gwangju World Championships, the water polo team led by coach Alessandro Campagna regained a title that has eluded them since 2011. "It was a perfect final and a perfect day," he said. "The team was exceptional. There will be even more tension next year at the Games. The Olympic Games are always different. This experience will serve as a test."
The competition showed, once again, that water polo is a specialist affair dominated by European teams, who were strong in the final stages (making up seven out of eight in the quarter-finals and four out of four in the semi-finals). It is the fourth world title for Italy, who will try to regain Olympic gold in 2020, 28 years after their win in the epic final against Spain at Barcelona 1992.
Better than Messi!
In Gwangju, the Italians demonstrated their strength and talent by dominating their opponents with speed of execution and organisation. "We followed the coach's instructions to a T," said Italian captain Pietro Figlioli. "We left no space for the Spanish and focused on our goal."
With a very talented team, the Italians were able to make a difference during the preliminary matches: 8-7 against Germany and 7-6 against Greece. In the final, goalkeeper Marco Del Lungho proved decisive once again, as did the competition's MVP, Francesco Di Fulvio, and Stefano Luongo, the team's top scorer with 10 goals. Originally from Argentina and a former Barça player, left-handed Gonzalo Echenique said: "The difference between Leo Messi and me? I was crowned world champion!"
Croatia take a podium spot, Americans dominate
The bronze-medal match pitted the two finalists from the previous World Championships, in Budapest in 2017, against each other and, just like two years ago, Croatia beat Hungary 10-7. The man of the match was undoubtedly Maro Jokovic, who scored six goals. The Serbian team, crowned Olympic champions at Rio 2016 and this year’s World League winners, dominated Australia 13-9 in the fifth-place match.
There was much less suspense in the women's competition, where the US team won, as expected, beating Spain 11-6. In the final game, the Spanish were holding onto a 3-3 tie before collapsing in the third quarter, when they were overtaken for a final score of 9-3. The Americans, with their excellent goalie Ashleigh Johnson, the first African-American woman on the national water polo team, won for the third time in a row at the World Championships, and the sixth time total.
Throughout the competition, they won by large margins: 22-3 against New Zealand, 12-9 against the Netherlands, 26-1 against South Africa, 15-5 against Greece and 7-2 against Australia. Led by Adam Krikorian, the team is well equipped to win their third Olympic gold medal in a row next year in Tokyo.