If you had to single out one nation as the best women’s water polo team in 2022 it would have to be Spain after taking both the LEN European Championship and FINA Women’s Water Polo World League Super Final crowns following their fifth-place finish at the 19th FINA World Championships Budapest 2022. This, in a year following the Olympic Games and less than two years before the next iteration in Paris as the leading nations refresh their teams.
The United States of America accomplished its major goal by downing Hungary 9-7 at the FINA World Championship final in the Hungarian capital, a major stepping stone to the Paris 2024 Games and the pinnacle competition of the year.
But it was a busy year for the European nations as they had the European Championships in Split, Croatia to fill a gap between the Worlds and World League Super Final.
The year started with the European rounds of the FINA World League and the FINA Women’s Water Polo Intercontinental Cup in Lima, Peru.
The latter tournament attracted a quality field and had the added attraction of presenting the sport to a new audience and pulling Argentina, Cuba and Colombia into the fold.
The USA women presented with an almost completely new team of players and officials and finished behind Australia in the round-robin event, losing their encounter 11-4 — a rare loss for the USA.
The year ended with the final World League Super Final in Tenerife, Spain where the USA was again on the losing end of a match, this time the semifinals against Hungary in a shootout.
With the loss, a question has to be asked of the three-time defending Olympic champions: Has the USA lost its lustre or is it going through a rebuilding phase ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games like other nations?
In between these events were the all-important 19th FINA World Championships with the USA emerging the victor with a 9-7 win over the host nation. Following this, Spain reigned supreme over the other European nations, winning the European Championships in Split, Croatia.
In fact, for the Spaniards, winning both the Europeans and the World League in a packed year was most commendable with its tried-and-tested line-up.
Scoring Goals chatted to four of the main coaches who saw the year in different lights. All admitted there was still plenty of work to do, getting combinations and players aligned with Paris 2024 so close. They will also get a chance to select the right teams with two FINA World Championships – one in Fukuoka followed by the Doha edition – before Paris.
Spanish maestro Miki Oca said "We are very happy with the golds of the LEN European Championship in Split and the Super Final of the World League in Tenerife. Personally, I am not very fond of statistics or seeing how many times a team has won a competition. I put all my energy into the competition that lies ahead.
“We have to be very clear that each competition is a different story; what has been done before no longer counts; we all have to start from scratch. In Europe, we are already five big (six with Russia), but at the world level add the USA, Australia, Canada and China. The best teams in the world were in the Tenerife Super Final and it is very difficult to win it.
"Now we have less than two years ahead of the Olympic Games in Paris and we must continue working and improving things on the way to the Fukuoka World Championships as the next major international event,” Oca said.
USA’s Adam Krikorian was obviously pleased with the result at the World Championships, “especially considering we had six new faces who were not on the team in Tokyo. Not to mention the opportunity to play on Margaret Island is always priceless. We probably exceeded our own expectations in Budapest, which was something new and refreshing for us to experience.
“Regarding the influx of new players in Lima and Tenerife, this has all been a part of the plan. Over the last few years, we noticed a gap in talent within our programme and we knew that we would have to make some strategic decisions that put us in the best position for 2024, but also with an eye on LA (Los Angeles Olympics) in 2028.
“We invested a bit more time and energy in our youth team, as it had been seven years since our last medal in the younger age groups. That paid off in Belgrade (with the gold medal) and we hope it helped to lay part of the foundation down for the next two-six years,” Krikorian said. “In the same breath, we also wanted to give some freedom to our veterans (including Maggie Steffens and Maddie Musselman), so they can explore things outside of sport and come back a bit more rejuvenated when things ramp up.”
Hungary’s Attila Biro has mixed feelings about the year.
“I wasn’t content with the result of Tenerife. I was content with the result of the World Championships. The play in the World League Super Final, I was happy with. We have a pretty young team with a good level of the team. I think we deserved more than a draw in the final (in Tenerife).”
On beating the USA at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and again in Budapest at the World Championships, Biro said: “That showed we are developing and we’re in a good way. It is still not enough. We beat the USA in the Olympic Games in Tokyo in the group stage and in the semifinal at the World Champs, but we need something extra in the final.
“We are in a good way and hopefully we will do well next year,” Biro commented. “I brought four young players (to Tenerife) who never played before in the first team. I did the same with the team in the Europeans.
“Rita (Keszthelyi) didn’t play in the European Champs but played in the Super Final,” Biro said “It’s easy to play with Rita than without her. They (younger girls) proved they are the future of Hungarian water polo and I can rely on them for the future, especially the Paris Olympics.
Biro spoke of junior prodigy Kata Hajdu, who was born in 2006 and took gold silver and bronze medals in this year’s junior competitions.
“She is a big talent for the future,” Biro said. “She was the youngest all tournament in Tenerife. She will get better and better and she can have a place in the first team for next year.”
The Netherlands’ Evangelos Doudesis looked back on the FINA World League Super Final with his head held high. He gave experienced forces such as Ilse Koolhaas, Sabrina van der Sloot and goalkeeper Laura Aarts a rest after a busy summer and was pleased to see that their young replacements also did an excellent job.
“Overall, it was a very interesting tournament. Nice to see that we can also compete with the best teams in the world in this composition,” Doudesis said. “We showed a lot of mental resilience in the tournament. I am satisfied with the steps we have taken — 2022 was a great year for us, where we competed for the medals in three title tournaments – World Championship, European Championship and World League – until the last day. The team deserves a big compliment for that. Of course, our highlight was the bronze medal at the World Championship in Budapest.”
The refreshment of other teams was also obvious with Italy, Greece, Australia and the like bringing newcomers online for the post-Covid era.