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World has dramatically changed over the last 28 years. The Soviet Union and its satellite countries do not exist any longer, the Balkans appear as a united nation only in old geography maps and history books and, in sports, athletes have become faster and stronger. Water polo has been revolutionised as well, for teams are accustomed to score more goals and players have more physical strength and swimming skills. Still, there is still a common denominator – Ratko Rudić. He has just made history. He has won the fourth Olympic gold medal as a coach, perhaps the most significant for him, as he has led Croatia, his homeland, to a historic triumph by beating Italy 8-6.
The eve of the final match of men’s water polo tournament at London 2012 was not that different from that of the last game at the European Championships in Zagreb a couple of years ago. Croatia and Italy were the two finalists also at the time and their path to the gold medal clash was really similar. Like two years ago, Italy had lost just one match so far – to Croatia in the group stage. Like two years ago, they qualified for the final against all odds by sending Hungary off the tournament. Like two years ago, Italy coach Alessandro Campagna challenged his master Ratko Rudić, who inspired the golden era of the Settebello marked by the gold medal in Barcelona 1992 – and Campagna was one of the players.
And just like two years ago, the match beginning was really balanced. Indeed, Italy verged on perfection, as they were two goals up after six minutes – both scored in numerical superiority – and as solid as vigilant whilst defending. Moreover, goalkeeper Stefano Tempesti made four decisive saves and unluckily conceded a goal to Ivan Buljubašić.
Disorientated by this Garibaldi-like approach, Croatia eventually overturned the situation as they scored for the first time in man up situation with a terrific shot by left-handed Maro Joković and took the lead with evergreen Samir Barač as he netted from long distance. Maurizio Felugo equalised early in the third period, but that was just the last buzz by the Settebello for a long time. Suddenly, Croatia became more concrete and clinical whilst shooting – Miho Bošković also converted a penalty shot – and the goal protected by Josip Pavić became narrower and narrower to the eyes of the Italian poloists. Certainly not assisted by Fortuna and physically inferior to their counterparts, the Settebello had to fill a two-goal deficit as the fourth period was about to start.
The last period, and the match itself, was almost close to the end after just one minute, for Joković put the ball into the net well sided from 5 metres. He eventually scored his hat-trick a few minutes later, meanwhile Pavić neutralised some desperate efforts by Italy. Alex Giorgetti and Christian Presciutti respectively exploited a one man up and a counterattack to interrupt Italy’s scoring deficiency, but Croatia immediately replied and set the basis for a historic gold medal.
Perhaps, history has just gave back to Croatia what they were stolen exactly 20 years ago. Italy were Olympic champions for the third time as they overcame Spain in Barcelona after an endless battle, but it is unquestionable they were somehow helped by the absence of Yugoslavia. Perhaps, they were the best team, with two Olympic titles – 1984 and 1988 -, one European gold medal and one World title in 1991. Then, Croatian athletes were prevented to play for any Yugoslav national team. Another bloody civil war broke and Yugoslavia could not participate in a competition that they might have won.
On their part, Italy could not deal with an evidently superior opponent. In just three years they have been back from the wreckage the day after the World Aquatics Championships, making the legend of the Settebello again alive. They were runner-ups in Europe and climbed on the top of the world one year ago in Shanghai. The Olympic triumph, perhaps, is just a matter of patience.