Canada’s water polo men ‘in sync’ for Olympic qualifier after pro-style camp

Water Polo Canada might highlight a pre-tournament decision by head coach Giuseppe Porzio as a key factor should the men’s team secure one of three Tokyo Olympic berths at the week-long FINA qualifier beginning this weekend.

Through connections, Porzio arranged for the squad to train alongside Pro Recco in Genoa, Italy, scrimmaging against the powerhouse and other nearby First Division clubs for nearly a month.

“It’s a way to get [the players] familiar with the pace of the game and playing at a higher-thinking level after basically being off for a year,” said former national team coach George Gross Jr., who will provide analysis during CBC Sports’ live streaming and television coverage of the Feb. 20-21 semifinals and respective bronze and gold-medal matches.

“The players have said they’ve noticed a huge change how in sync they are with each other and [have adjusted] to the pace of play from when they arrived.”

Porzio announced a 15-man roster — 13 active players, two reserves — on Saturday before the 13th-ranked Canadians open the preliminary round in Rotterdam, Netherlands on Sunday at 8:30 a.m. ET against No. 11 Brazil.

The training camp undoubtedly was welcomed by several Canadian players based in Montreal during the COVID-19 pandemic who didn’t have the opportunity to train regularly or play games, while some of their teammates played professionally in Europe.

“They weren’t able to do a lot of systems work, except on video,” said Gross Jr., who has coached the University of Toronto women’s team the past 12 years after guiding the men in the early 1990s. “They’re going to have to shake the rust off in a hurry, and that’s why the Pro Recco camp was so important.”

Canada schedule

  • Sunday vs. Brazil, 8:30 a.m. ET
  • Monday vs. Montenegro, 11:30 a.m.
  • Feb. 16 vs. Georgia, 10 a.m.
  • Feb. 17 vs. Turkey, 2:30 p.m.
  • Feb. 18 vs. Greece, 8:30 a.m.
  • Feb. 19 — Quarter-finals
  • Feb. 20 — Semifinals
  • Feb. 21 — Finals

Twelve teams are competing for Olympic spots, with Canada also facing No. 6 Montenegro, No. 8 Greece, Georgia and Turkey in Group A. Group B is comprised of No. 2 Croatia, No. 14 Germany, No. 15 Russia, Argentina, France and the Netherlands.

The top four from each group advance to the crossover quarter-finals on Feb. 19 at Zwemcentrum Rotterdam, a 50-metre pool that opened in January 2018.

The 10th-ranked Americans had previously qualified along with Australia, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Serbia, South Africa and Spain.

Canada, which has never won an Olympic medal in water polo and didn’t qualify a men’s team for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics after its 11th-place showing in 2008 at Beijing, isn’t expected to upend either Greece or Montenegro, despite a history of success against the latter.

“Montenegro is more experienced and has been playing throughout the past year along with Greece,” noted Gross Jr., who competed at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, where the Canadian men placed ninth for their best-ever Summer Games performance. “But you have to remember the pressure on Greece, Montenegro and Croatia is enormous. If they don’t make the Olympics, it’s a national disaster.

“Turkey is a winnable game and Canada has to win against Brazil and Georgia. Canada is probably the better team [than Turkey], based on results in 2018 and 2019.

“There’s a monumental difference between placing third or fourth in the group,” continued Gross Jr. “The fourth-place finisher will cross over to play [likely Group B winner] Croatia and it’s goodbye Charlie, but the team finishing third is going to draw a [favourable opponent].”

Captain Nic Constantin-Bicari is likely to be the offensive force for a young Canadian outfit featuring many players making their Olympic qualification debut. The 29-year-old centre-forward, who won a second consecutive Hungarian Cup title with Ferencvárosi Torna Club in September, has also played professionally in France and Australia.

Captain Nic Constantin-Bicari, with experience playing in France, Australia and coming off back-to-back Hungarian Cup titles with Ferencvárosi Torna Club, is expected to lead the Canadian offence in Rotterdam. (Submitted by Water Polo Canada)

“We have to play eight games in eight days, and all the matches will be difficult,” he told Water Polo Canada. “Based on my experience at this [qualification tournament] we have to be focused, not only on our performance in the pool, but our physical and mental recovery to maintain [a high level of] intensity throughout the competition.”

A solid supporting cast includes Greek-born centre-back George Torakis, who joined the Canadian team in 2014 and won a Pan Am bronze medal a year later in Toronto. Like Torakis, 24-year-old attacker Sean Spooner of Port Coquitlam, B.C., spent last summer in Greece preparing for the season.

Bringing size is six-foot-six centre-forward Bogdan Djerkovic of Ottawa and six-foot-two attacker Jérémie Côté of Montreal, who are teammates with the University of the Pacific Tigers in Stockton, Calif. And starting in goal will be 27-year-old Milan Radenovic, a 2019 Pan Am silver medallist in his 11th year with the team.

Canadian head coach Giuseppe Porzio will lean on goalkeeper Milan Radenovic, pictured, in Rotterdam. “No team can survive adequate to poor goaltending [in the Olympic qualifier],” said CBC Sports analyst George Gross Jr. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press/File)

“No team can survive adequate to poor goaltending [in the Olympic qualifier],” said Gross Jr. “Discipline and goaltending will be key factors in the opener. From a coaching standpoint, I like how the schedule lays out and starting with a must-win game [against Brazil] is good.”

Reuel D’Souza, the 21-year-old attacker from Port Coquitlam, was expected to join the team on Friday after contracting coronavirus while playing in France. Gross Jr. said three other Canadian players tested positive in Europe but have since recovered.

Canada roster

  • Milan Radenovic, Toronto
  • Gaelan Patterson, North Vancouver, B.C.
  • Bogdan Djerkovic, Ottawa
  • Nicolas Constantin-Bicari, Repentigny, Que.
  • Mark Spooner, Port Coquitlam, B.C.
  • George Torakis, Montreal
  • Jérémie Côté, Pointe-Claire, Que.
  • Sean Spooner, Port Coquitlam, B.C.
  • Aleksa Gardijan, Gatineau, Que.
  • Aria Soleimanipak, Calgary
  • Max Schapowal, Beaconsfield, Que.
  • Reuel D’Souza, Port Coquitlam, B.C.
  • Samuel Reiher, Longueuil, Que.

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