Montenegro and Greece were the first to confirm their ticket to Tokyo 2020 before Croatia clinched the final qualification spot in a dramatic and tense penalty shootout at the final qualification event
The final spots in the Tokyo 2020 Men's Water Polo Tournament have been confirmed with Montenegro, Greece and Croatia all set to return to the Olympic stage once again.
The 2020 Men's Water Polo Olympic Games Qualification Tournament was the final chance for 12 teams to book one of the three spots on offer to the world's biggest multi-sport event.
Originally scheduled to take place from 22-29 March and then from 31 May-7 June 2020, it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Montenegro and Greece were the first two nations to qualify after their semi-finals wins with the former eventually being crowned champions after a 10-9 win in the gold medal match on Sunday (21 February).
After their semi-final victory in a penalty shootout over Croatia, MVP of the game Stefan Vidovic of Montenegro couldn't hide his excitement.
“I’m so proud to be in this team! I think we deserved to go to Tokyo as we never stopped believing in making it," the 28-year-old told FINA.com post match.
"Now I can tell you we had a lot of problems before this tournament, injuries, COVID-problems but we carried on and our only focus was to achieve this result. We had a project in the last five years, we all were committed, spent the whole summer with preparations and I think that helped us in the most difficult moments.”
Meanwhile, Greece were able to overcome Russian Federation in a 13-10 to qualify for their 16th Olympic Games.
“What can I say in this moment... I’m full of with emotions, we are really happy to achieve our goal here," said Rio 2016 Olympian Angelos Vlachopoulos. "Perhaps we also gave some happiness to the Greek people who can be proud of us. It may matter in these days when people have so much troubles in their lives, with the pandemic, the financial difficulties – I hope we could offer some good moments for them, something to celebrate.”
Fifth time's the charm for Croatia
For London 2012 gold medallist Croatia, they were made to fight tooth and nail for this ticket to Tokyo 2020.
Before the bronze medal match against Russian Federation - a game that would decide who would have a chance at Olympic glory - they already had four attempts at qualifying for the Olympic Games.
At the 2019 World League Super Final they lost by a single goal to rivals Serbia, and while a win in the semi-finals at the 2019 World Championships would've secured them an Olympic spot, Croatia lost to Spain - again by a single goal. Then at the 2020 European Championships they once again lost to Spain by a single goal then there was the loss in the semi-final at Qualification Tournament.
Croatia, who have gone to every Games since they gained independence, were at risk at missing their first Olympics in 25 years.
With one final chance, it went down to the wire.
In an edge-of-your-seat match, it was 15 rounds and 30 shots in a penalty shootout that determined the final Olympic spot. Russian Federation, who had not made an Olympics since their bronze medal at Athens 2004, came close to qualify but Croatian goalkeeper Toni Popadic saved the shot.
Then nine rounds on and after missing a second chance, Croatia's Josip Vrlic scored what was perhaps the most important goal of his career to send his team to Tokyo.
Speaking about his secret of shooting penalties, Vrlic gave a simple answer to FINA.com: “How did I shoot penalties? You step up and fire with all what you have.”
However, there is no denying the visible relief Croatian players felt upon finally qualify for the Olympics this summer.
“Thank God we got this! I think we really deserved it after this whole tournament, but also what preceded it in the previous years at the different competitions," 2019 World Championship bronze medallist Ante Vukicevic said. "Yes, this is the hardest possible scenario, the road could not have been harder, but we succeeded and that will only strengthen us as a team.”
Groups confirmed for Tokyo 2020
With all 24 teams (12 men's, 10 women's) confirmed for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the groups have now been confirmed for the men's and women's tournaments.
For the first time in the women's tournament 10 teams will compete at an Olympic Games - between Sydney 2000 and Rio 2016 only eight teams participated.
The Netherlands, who return to the Olympic stage for the first time since Beijing 2008, and Hungary were the final two women's teams to confirm their qualification for Tokyo after being the top two teams at the 2020 Women's Water Polo Olympic Qualification Tournament last month.
Group A sees 2019 World Championship bronze medallist Australia, 2020 European Champions Spain and silver medallist Netherlands with 2019 Pan American silver medallist Canada and South Africa rounding it out.
Meanwhile in Group B, back-to-back Olympic champions the United States will face Hungary for the third consecutive Games, while Rio bronze medallist Russian Federation, 2018 Asian Games winners People's Republic of China and hosts Japan are set for a tough campaign.
In fact, USA (gold), Russian Federation (bronze) and Hungary (fourth) all made the semi-finals at the Rio 2016 Games.
For the men's side of the draw, Greece, hosts Japan and 2020 European champions Hungary are in the same group just as they were at Rio 2016 with Italy and USA joining them.
But it's Group B that will be the one to watch for water polo fans.
All three former Yugoslavian teams including reigning Olympic champions Serbia, 2017 world champions Croatia and Montenegro have been drawn alongside each other. The level of toughness is upped by the fact 2019 World Championships silver medallist Spain and 2019 World League bronze medallist Australia are in the mix along with Kazakhstan.
Just like the women's draw, the men's Group B also features the three of the top four teams (Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro) from the last Games.