He played three Olympics himself but never won it. In his first cycle as a national team coach Dejan Savic and his players became Olympic champions. In a one-sided final the Serbs confirmed their favourite status and put the icing on the cake of what have been international domination since 2014 beating neighbours Croatia 11-7 in the gold medal final. An historic title for a nation that had won bronze the past two Olympics and lost a dramatic final in 2004. Now one of the most successful generations had the best build-up to the Rio Games and everyone agreed that, with only the Olympic gold missing, they would get it this time.
A rough start to the tournament resulted in a group stage that probably every team member wants to forget. Thanks to wins over Australia and Japan the Serbs qualified for the quarterfinal where Spain was beaten and the team looked to have broken free. Italy was controlled in the semi-final and Croatia could not stop the Serbs in the final.
A determined team that broke with the recent tradition of great success in between Olympics but missing out on the Olympic gold medal games, let alone winning it. But early on it became clear where this Dejan Savic coached squad was going. Their defence that had helped them through the semis was again in full force on Saturday. Croatia struggled on man-up where Serbia’s defence caused trouble and goalkeeper Branislav Mitrovic experienced a nice start to the final saving four of Croatia’s opening five shot attempts. To make matters worse for the Croatians their goalkeeper of the tournament Marko Bijac didn’t have one of his best games and Serbia’s shooting was ‘red hot.’
Emerging star of the final was Dusan Mandic. the youngest Olympian in the water polo tournament in London, he decided to step up when it counted the most four years later. Next to Filip Filipovic the younger left-hander scored four goals from outside including one furious backhand on a free throw attempt that surprised Josip Pavic who had substituted Bijac late in the third period.
Serbia operated from their defence and made the difference just there. Croatia on the other end looked all-right on set play but couldn’t stop Serbia’s extra man or individual actions, mainly from outside as also Filipovic came through with two bombs off free throws. They weren’t to be stopped.
When Dusko Pijetlovic on a counter attack scored the 10-5 goal the game looked really over with still seven minutes on the clock. Croatia patiently continued playing but didn’t have the full belief anymore. They turned to Sandro Sukno who scored quickly after but in the remainder Croatia could not break the Serbian defence, and Mandic blasted home another one, only to see Xavi Garcia setting the final score at 7-11 with 2 minutes to go. Serbia played out the clock and on defence had not too much to fear from the Croatians.
Celebrations started in the final seconds where the players new the gold was theirs. Just the third Olympic gold medal for Serbia as a nation, the first in water polo and icing on the cake for a generation that won everything since and from 2014. They came in as heavy favourites, struggled with the pressure and but broke free and wrote history. Water polo will never be the same.