After twenty years of trying, Serbia finally made it. They had three bronzes and a silver in the past four editions, but now they got rid of their Olympic demons. After a shaky start in the prelims, they blew away all their rivals in the knockout phase, lastly their arch-rivals, the title-holder Croatians, in a one-sided final (the last day saw the largest gap, +4, in the gold medal match). The bronze went to the Italians, while Montenegro had to settle for the 4th place for the third time in succession. Hungary, the only undefeated side of the meet in the regular time, came fifth.
Game 4, 17.50: Croatia v Serbia 7-11 (2-3, 1-3, 2-3, 2-2)
Referees: Georgios Stavridis (GRE), Peter Molnar (HUN)
CROATIA: Josip Pavic, Damir Buric 1, Antonio Petkovic, Luka Loncar, Maro Jokovic, Luka Bukic, Marko Macan, Andro Buslje, Sandro Sukno 3, Ivan Krapic, Andelo Setka 1, Javier Garcia 2, Marko Bijac (GK). Head coach: Ivica Tucak
SERBIA: Branislav Mitrovic, Dusan Mandic 4, Zivko Gocic 1, Sava Randelovic, Milos Cuk, Dusko Pijetlovic 2, Slobodan Nikic 1, Milan Aleksic, Nikola Jaksic, Filip Filipovic 2, Andrija Prlainovic, Stefan Mitrovic 1, Gojko Pijetlovic (GK). Head coach: Dejan Savic
Croatia: 2 for 12
Serbia: 2 for 6
Mission completed. The Serbians finally made it and after 1988 they returned to the top of the podium, though that time it was the big Yugoslavia, Serbs and Croats together. Since that state broke up, the Serbs chased the Olympic glory in vain. Generation of fantastic players tried desperately, won world and European titles, they were close at the Games, but never succeeded. After an embarrassing 8th place finish in 1996, in 2000 they lost to Hungary 8-7 in the semis. In 2004 they lost to Hungary 8-7 in the final. In 2008 they lost to the USA 10-5 in the semis (a shocker). In 2012 they lost the semis once more, this time to Italy, 7-5. Their head coach, Dejan Savic was part of the first three painful journeys so he knew what to avoid in order to reach the top.
The first week, however, was a nightmare for them. Two ties (v HUN, GRE) and a real shocking loss to Brazil which sent the mighty Serbs to the brink of elimination. A loss to Australia would have meant an end of their dreams and in fact it stood 7-7 with 5:08 to go, before the Serbs clinched it. In two days time they had to bounce back from 2-5 down against Japan, as their last scare in Rio, since then they were back to their devastating form which brought them the 2015 world title, the 2014 and 2016 European titles, four straight World League crowns between 2013 and 2016 and a World Cup win in 2014. In the quarters they downed Spain 10-7 (were 7-3 up already), beat Italy 10-8 (led 9-3 early in the fourth) and beat Croatia 11-7 on the last day.
It was almost as easy as last year’s World Championships final in Kazan. There they won 11-4, led 5-2 at halftime, it was still 7-4 after three periods before the final surge blew the Croats away.
Here the Serbs, playing with one less field player as Milos Cuk had to sit out with an injury, quickly gained a 1-3 lead while the Croats missed two man-ups, though they scored from action a bit later. At 2-3 Croatia had a man-up in the second, missed it again and Slobodan Nikic made it 2-4 from a dying extra. Zivko Gocic’s smart right-handed lob from the right wing was a real boost for the Serbs (2-5), and even though Andelo Setka pulled one back from a man-up, an immediate answer arrived from Dusan Mandic.
It stood 3-6 at halftime, Damir Buric scored for 4-6 early in the third and after a killed Serbian man-up the Croats had a possession to come closer but Luka Bukic’s shot was stopped by Branislav Mitrovic. As it turned out that was the last chance for the Croats to stay in the game. Who else, than Filip Filipovic blasted two devastating goals, in between two more Croatian 6 on 5s were denied, the damage was done at 4-8. At this point perhaps even the Croats were aware what the outcome had to be, especially after Dusan Mandic’s third hit with 11 seconds from time in the third.
In their only final in the recent editions, in 2004 the Serbs led 7-5 before the last period against Hungary – it was 9-5 now, against a visibly broken Croatian team. Two goals came in the first minute of the fourth, one apiece, but the Serbs scored first so the psychological advantage remained on their side. And when Dusan Mandic made it 6-11 with 3:29 to go, it was over. After a save, with 2:30 minutes remaining, goalie Branislav Mitrovic began the celebrations and no one was against it, players at the bench started to congratulate each other. The remaining time quickly passed and when the buzzer went, wild jubilation erupted in the pool and at poolside, too.
One man was missing from the kisses and hugs in the water: head coach Dejan Savic insisted to not being tossed to the pool. He had never let his players throw him to the water so far, though was master of a series of gold medals in the past four years. Still, he usually says, after the pressure filled moments of the finals he just loves to sit back on the bench and watch his players celebrating their success. He did just that here in Rio. Historians recorded that the Soviets did the first coach-tossing back in 1972, in Munich. Since that edition, perhaps Savic is the first who did not bath together with his players in the pool after an Olympic triumph. Though history will only remember him as the first coach who managed to lead the independent Serbian team to the highest heights, the top of the podium at the Games.
Slobodan Nikic, player, Serbia:
“This is maybe the best feeling in my life. I feel like I’m flying. After winning so many golds except the Olympic Games, we showed our power in this tournament. These last three matches we played like a team and we deserve it.”
“It’s not the first time for us but this is special because we were missing the Olympic gold medal. For a few of us, maybe this was our last Olympics. That’s why it’s the best feeling and we feel so proud. We are one of the best water polo teams in history. Maybe the best.”
“We need some rest, we need some beer and to chill. These eight matches were really hard for us and we need some rest because we were dreaming three or four years for this.”
Filip Filipovic, player, Serbia:
“We trained so hard and so much. We suffered so much for this gold medal. This is it for us. Let’s say it’s game over.”
“Why we are so strong? Maybe it’s the food, water, the land, the girls we have in our country? I don’t know but I hope the government will now see the opportunity to invest more in the sport, to see that we really have some great talent and some magnificent players.”
“I don’t want to promise anything. I just need some time to think about what I’m going to do next. This would be the best way for finish my national team career but I will speak with the team. I will see if I have more motivation for the future. I will definitely be in Tokyo but maybe as a spectator. We will see.”
Dusan Mandic, player, Serbia:
“It feels like the whole team has reached eternity. These guys are unbelievable and this a unique team. This is a fantastic success for Serbia. I still can’t believe what just happened. We are the world, European and now Olympic champions. There is no better feeling and we are just in shock.”
Andrija Prlainovic, player, Serbia:
“We played tremendously. We made only a few mistakes, which isn’t usual for a final. In the last one and a half days I really felt ready for this moment; that we were going to achieve the most memorable moment of our careers.
“The vast majority of this team will continue playing but for a few guys this will be their last competition and their crowning glory.”
Ivica Tucak, head coach, Croatia:
“Serbia was the better team. We tried everything we had against them but they were just to physical and strong. The result shows that.”
“Right now we have a very young team. This team is already set to start the next Olympic cycle. I believe that 10 or 11 players on this team will play in Tokyo. I’m very optimistic about our chances in Tokyo.”
10. United States
Most Valuable Player (MVP): Filip Filipovic (SRB)