Canada's men's water polo team finally set to resume Olympic qualifying quest

·3 min read

Canada's men's water polo team had already gathered in Europe a year ago at this time for its final push for a berth in the Tokyo Olympics, but the qualifying tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19.

Finally, the Canadians' quest for a ticket to Tokyo is about to resume in Rotterdam.

Canada needs to finish top-three in the 12-country tournament that opens on Sunday in the Netherlands, and while on paper the challenge appears immense, coach Giuseppe Porzio said that nothing is certain amid a global pandemic.

"On paper, Croatia, Montenegro and Greece, they are top three because they are teams that they can win for sure the Olympic Games," Porzio said Friday from Rotterdam. "But (the pandemic) is not an easy situation for anybody. All of the teams have had difficulty, they've had COVID cases, some injury, and at the end you never know."

Canada, ranked 13th globally, opens against No. 11 Brazil on Sunday, then faces sixth-ranked Montenegro on Monday, before rounding out group play against Georgia, Turkey, and No. 8 Greece.

"It's hard to say, but (Montenegro and Greece) are the strong teams that we will be fighting against," said Canadian goalie Milan Radenovic. "It's tough to keep up when nobody has kind of done anything in public."

The Canadians haven't been immune to the difficulties. Early lockdowns last spring kept players out of the national team's pool in Montreal, and when they were finally permitted back in, they couldn't practise together because of the contact nature of the sport.

The Canadian-based players gathered for a camp before Christmas. They lived in Airbnbs and were tested regularly for COVID-19 in a "bubble" type of environment.

Virtually the entire squad finally gathered three weeks ago for a pre-tournament camp in Genoa, where, thanks to Porzio's connections, they trained alongside Italian club Pro Recco, one of the top professional teams in the world, and scrimmaged against other First Division teams.

The Canadians lived in a hotel that was open just to them, and were tested regularly. They were tested twice on Thursday, once before boarding the flight to Rotterdam, and then again upon landing.

The Canadian team hasn't been able to evade the global pandemic. There were positive cases among players based in France, and Jeremie Blanchard, a 23-year-old from Longueuil, Que., and member of the team that won silver at the 2019 Pan Am Games, wasn't able to clear COVID protocols in time to play in Rotterdam.

Reuel D'Souza, a 21-year-old from Port Coquitlam, B.C., who also contracted COVID-19 in France, joined the team on Wednesday but has yet to practise.

"He is not in the best shape, but I think he can do it," Porzio said.

Porzio has 15 players in Rotterdam, and will announce his roster of 13 plus two alternates on Saturday.

Radenovic, who's been with the national team for 10 years, said he and his teammates weren't sure up until the last couple of weeks whether the tournament would be delayed again. They hoped for the best.

"We just went with the assumption that it was going to happen at a specified date," he said. "So now that we're here, we're ready for the start."

Group B of the qualifying tournament has Croatia, Germany, Russie, Romania, Netherlands and France. The top four teams in each group move on to an elimination cross-over round.

Serbia, Italy, Spain, the U.S., Australia, South Africa, Kazakhstan, Hungary and host Japan already have Olympic berths.

The Canadian men have made four Olympic appearances, most recently in 2008 in Beijing where they finished 11th.

Canada's women's water polo team has qualified for the Tokyo Games.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press