Gergely Csurka, FINA Media Committee

The long drought is finally over – FINA action resumes in the pool. Few would have thought on 10 March 2020, when Spain shocked title-holder Serbia in the first quarter-final of the men’s World League European qualifications, that it will take 303 days to see athletes warming up at a FINA competition again. Now in Debrecen (HUN), the European qualifications will be finished in the frame of a three-day tournament, played in the usual ‘bubble’ format under strict healthcare measures and in front of empty stands.

Though the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over but sport has already proved that it can bring some joy for its lovers during these extraordinary times and it may also offer some hope that our life can get back to normal soon. Among the FINA disciplines, water polo is the first to ‘show up’ and the World League European qualifications promise premium action as it features the best teams in the world.

Now the top eight European sides come together in Debrecen. Those connected to our sports are aware that he city has already appeared on the map of aquatics by hosting short- and long-course European Championships in swimming (in 2007 and 2012) and now the second-largest city in Hungary opens its world-class pool complex to stage the three-day water polo tournament.

The opening day will offer some outstanding matches but the last one stands out when reigning world champion Italy will clash with the reigning European champion Hungary – the game is a kind of replay of the semi-final of the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju (won by Italy).

Alessandro Campagna in authentic gear of the current times, at the press conference – Photo: Istvan Derencsenyi

Inevitably, Alessandro Campagna and Tamas Marcz, the respective head coaches of these two teams were invited to the online opening press conference of the event and both emphasised that the most important thing was to play national team matches again.

“I’m very happy to be able to play at last” Italian boss Alessandro Campagna said. “We had our last match in February in 2020, after that it was a bit of shock for all players to learn that the Olympics was cancelled. However, our athletes are strong in mind, they are professional so as soon as it was possible, they started practicing as strong as possible, even without a direct target in sight. It was all about mentality and I kept telling them that during the lockdown individual development was the key. Now we are all in great mood as we can be here.”

“We are all very excited to take on the Hungarian caps” Tamas Marcz said. “Our last match was in France in last February, then we also thought it was shocking to lose the chance to play at the Olympics in the summer of 2020. Still, the players found the new motivation, to be ready for the national competitions and finally we can have some international action too.”

Though both teams were clearly on the rise, neither coach thinks of 2020 as a lost chance but rather an opportunity to work one year more before the Games. “Actually, I’m happy that it happened this way” Campagna explained. “When you claim the world title, you think you are on the top of the world but in a month it means nothing in sporting terms. And you could see that in the following January when we lost the quarters to Montenegro, a team finished ninth in Gwangju. It shows there are six-eight teams, which have equal chances for the medals so it was better to start from zero and rebuild the team again. The selection was not easy as we have the Covid-factor now so it’s better to have 20-22 players on the roster so you can choose from a wider circle.”

Hungarian head coach Tamas Marcz – another event at home, though this time without their great fans

“I think the most difficult was to deal with the uncertainty” Tamas Marcz added. “We prepared programmes for the planned practices, scheduled the trainings but had to cancel them plenty of times – that was pretty difficult for a coach to handle, also on club level. And the bad times are not over yet, though we see the light at the end of the tunnel. Now we can manage to have some tournaments, and this time I was lucky to have 20 players with negative tests so I could make my selection based on the performances and not on medical terms.”

As for the top game on Friday, Sandro Campagna said that an Italy v Hungary match in water polo was like Italy vs Brazil in football. “These are the two teams with the most gold medals from the Olympics and World Championships so it’s very exciting. The result doesn’t really matter as we will have three difficult matches anyway so I can get invaluable information on my players.”

Tamas Marcz agreed by hinting: “Every time it’s a huge game not just because the last two big titles went to these two teams but also because of the great traditions. It’s a fantastic way to restart playing matches even if we have some key players missing but the same applies to Italy. Whatever the outcome will be, we shall have three tough encounters so it’s a great first step in our preparations for the Olympic Games. I’m also happy that our supporters can watch the team on TV at least and I hope next time they will be able to come to the pool as well.”

Well, not only the local fans can follow all the action from Debrecen, FINA TV offers live streaming with English commentary from each match – so stay tuned and enjoy water polo!

Day 1 – Fixtures

14:45 SERBIA v SPAIN

16:30 FRANCE v GREECE

18:15 CROATIA v MONTENEGRO

20:00 ITALY v HUNGARY

(The first is an exhibition game as it was played as scheduled on 10 March, so it means that Spain is already in the semi-final.)