The draws are out and coaches are already working out the permutations as to their teams’ advancements in the World Aquatics Championships for men’s and women water polo in Doha, Qatar this coming February. There is never an easy draw and predicting eventual winners can be a haphazard experience. On top of that, Hungary men and Netherlands women will be hoping their reigns are not the shortest on record. However, Scoring Goals takes a punt on what could happen.
With a third world championship in 20 months looming and the uncertainty of politics on the world stage disrupting the proposed January European water polo championships, it’s time to check out the possibilities of who will occupy the medal dais in Doha, Qatar in February.
While the rest of the globe has gained qualification spots for Doha, only Europe has to select its final three qualifiers via the Europeans, which are seemingly under threat because of the war in Gaza.
There is a suggestion that if the Europeans are shifted, or even curtailed, then qualifiers would have to be found from deeper in the conversation, possibly back to the previous Europeans.
We would have to surmise that in the men, Croatia, Montenegro and Romania would be the front-runners for the qualifying positions and in women, Greece, France and Israel would have a look in from this year’s worlds and the previous Europeans.
Should the European championships progress as scheduled, nations would have two solid weeks of intense competition, have a few weeks off and then bounce back in Doha — no mean feat. This could work either way with the possibility of a double campaign being too draining for some teams, or provide sharpening of skills and tactics, that non-European nations would be without in the crucial lead-up to the worlds.
With those decisions handled, let’s ponder how the competitions could go.
Group A has World Cup champion Spain up against Australia, South Africa and the No 1 qualifier from the European championships, likely to be Croatia or Montenegro.
Group B is led by world championships runner-up Greece, Paris 2024 host and sixth-ranked France, Brazil and China.
Group C is fronted by dual Olympic champion Serbia, the resurgent United States of America, Asian Games champion Japan and the second qualifier from the European championships.
Group D contains world champion Hungary, fifth-ranked Italy, Kazakhstan and the third European qualifier.
Italian head coach Alessandro Campagna was forthcoming about the draw: “To win the group, it’s our target, but we have to face the reigning world champion (Hungary). The cross won’t be easy, but it’s normal, because in this moment there are 10 teams very strong. It will be great world championship.”
Spain, Greece, Hungary and either United States of America or Serbia could be the semifinal contenders. We’re looking at form from 2023’s world championships, but anything can change in the intervening months.
Spain should win Group A, Greece will take Group B, USA or Serbia will prove too good in Group C and Hungary should persevere in Group D, earning the day off.
It comes down to the quarterfinals where Spain will play either USA or Serbia; Greece will play Italy; USA or Serbia will clash with Montenegro and Hungary will face France.
This should lead Spain to take on Italy in one semifinal and USA or Serbia against Hungary.
Could we see Spain against Hungary in the final? Only time and condensed training schedules, will tell.
France, Australia and Japan could upset teams, meaning the medal competition could go deep into 12 teams.
Group A has the most tantalising face-off with world champion Netherlands up against Olympic champion USA. Brazil and Kazakhstan fill the void.
Highly successful USA head coach Adam Krikorian said: "It's a bit surreal that another world championships is just around the corner. Although the rest of the field is not complete yet, we are honoured to be in the same group as the defending world champions (Netherlands) and know the challenges that come with playing against the best."
Group B contains beaten 2023 finalist Spain and China — 13th in Fukuoka — and the top two qualifiers from the European Championships — possibly Greece and France.
Group C boasts Australia, who finished fourth in Fukuoka; Hungary, who claimed fourth in the World Cup and an unaccustomed sixth in Fukuoka; newcomer Singapore, fresh from an Asian Games campaign that yielded fourth place, losing 12-6 to Kazakhstan in the bronze-medal play-off; and New Zealand, who took 11th classification in Fukuoka.
Aussie Stingers head coach Paul Oberman said: “I am happy with the draw for the Stingers. We open with debutant Singapore and then have tough games in the group phase against New Zealand and then Hungary. With the aim to finish top two in the group, the possible match-ups become a little clearer. With the continued worldwide growth of women’s water polo, the potential play-offs, quarters, semis and finals match-ups are all going to be very high quality games.”
Group D has world No 3 Italy up against seventh-ranked Canada, 12th-ranked South Africa and the third Euro qualifier, possibly Israel, who claimed 10th place in Fukuoka.
Whatever happens in the group stages, the second round will prove interesting, but the real interest will come in the quarter-finals when match 35 arrives with either Netherlands or USA, being the winner of Group A, taking on the team that finished second in Group C — either Hungary or Australia. Netherlands and USA were one and five in Fukuoka while Australia was fourth and Hungary sixth. Thus, two of the top six from this year — all of whom have won this title — will not play the semifinals in February.
Spain, beaten finalist in 2017, 1019 and 2023, can be expected to win Group B and Italy Group D, so their advancements should be less harrowing. Their real hurdles will happen in the quarterfinals with Spain having the easier route to the medals with a possible clash with Canada while Italy might face Greece.
There are many permutations and what-ifs. Leading into the semifinals, Spain and Italy should be awaiting whoever triumphs from the Netherlands/USA and Hungary/Australia conundrums.
There are 10 teams in the mix with Asian Games champion China performing at a high level in Hangzhou, especially against Japan, and France is brimming with enthusiasm ahead of Paris 2024. That means 12 teams in with a real chance, something not seen at this level before.
No matter who wins in Doha, the real prize is Paris 2024 and Doha will be a springboard for every team wishing for the ultimate prize. However, world titles are magnificent CV highlights and Doha will continue the fine tradition of producing true world champions. What is known is that the competitions are becoming expansive contests with more nations entering the medal mix.