After a somewhat turbulent period, the Dutch water polosters will start their hunt for title protonation on Sunday at the European Championship in Budapest. With top keeper Debby Willemsz back in the team and the hard lessons of the disappointing World Cup in mind, national coach Arno Havenga hopes to lead his team again to a European final and possibly a ticket for the Games.
The water polosters leave nothing to chance during the Olympic year; in the forests of Zeist, everything has been done since the summer to forge a prize-winning team. Playing abroad is forbidden and training takes place almost every day in the KNZB swimming pool. Everything must give way to make 2020 a successful year.
"We are here five or six days a week," says national coach Havenga on a Tuesday morning in a bungalow next to the KNZB bath. The spacious building in the wooded area, reminiscent of a cottage on a holiday park in the Veluwe, has become a sort of home for the selection. Part of the group even sleeps there.
"Thanks to these central training courses, we can invest more in mutual relationships, practice more game patterns and better test which players work best together", explains Havenga. "You see that the level goes up and that makes the selection in the width better. It was more difficult for me than before to put together an EC selection and that is a very good sign."
The many joint trainings come as called for the national coach, who saw his team underperforming at the World Cup in South Korea last summer. The Orange was eliminated without a chance by Spain in the quarterfinals and eventually finished seventh in Gwangju, where it wanted to finish on the podium.
"The evaluation of the World Cup was tough, because we simply did not perform there", emphasizes Havenga, the national team coach of the Dutch team since 2013. "We turned out to be tired and not innovative enough. Fortunately, we were already planning to train more intensively with each other centrally. This team is now able to give a whole tournament a go."
National coach Arno Havenga sees his players almost every day. (Photo: Pro Shots)
Return Willemsz increases chances of Orange for success
A more than important boost in the run-up to the European Championship is the return of keeper Willemsz, who decided to stop at the Orange in April 2019 due to motivational problems. Two months later, competitor Laura Aarts also gave up, so Havenga lost two keepers in one fell swoop, which he himself placed among the best five target women in the world.
Not entirely coincidentally, a day after returning from the World Championship, Havenga contacted 25-year-old Willemsz - in his eyes "the binding factor in the team" - to ask her to return to the Dutch team. Successfully, because in September the born South Holland was back in the water of the KNZB bath.
"You don't stop without a reason, so I needed the time to think about it," says Willemsz, who was no longer interested in top sport life more than half a year ago. "I am a very cheerful person by nature who makes jokes and at that moment I was just very unhappy. I gave everything for the sport, but I did not play. Partly because of that I found 'it should be very difficult'."
Her rapid return is therefore striking, because there was only five months between the moment of stopping and returning. Her goodbye competitor Aarts and the beckoning Olympic Games played an important role in Willemsz's choice to represent the Netherlands again.
"When Arno called after the World Cup, I knew that I would get a second chance to participate in the Games. Also during the conversations with my sports psychologist I found that I really wanted that. I wanted to be honest to myself and my team and only return if I could give 200 percent. Now everything is going well. "
Debby Willemsz opted for a quick return to the Orange. (Photo: Pro Shots)
EK penultimate qualifying moment for Tokyo
With Willemsz in the team, Orange hopes this month in Budapest to extend the European title of two years ago and perhaps even more importantly: to win an Olympic ticket. European Championship gold or a final against Spain already placed is enough for the Netherlands.
If it is not possible to win an Olympic ticket in Budapest, then the Orange will get another chance in March during an Olympic qualification tournament in Italy. After two missed Games (2012 and 2016), one thing is certain: the Olympic champion of 2008 wants to go to the biggest tournament on the sports calendar at all costs.
"If you are real, we have a better chance at the OKT of an Olympic ticket," said Havenga, who was team manager twelve years ago when the Orange team wrote history in Beijing by winning Olympic gold.
"Of course we want to go to Tokyo and even a medal there, but we really see the EC as an EC. There are six countries that are matched and we belong. If we really do top, we can reach the final "
Set up European Championships water polo (12-26 January)
- Two groups of six countries each
- The Orange squad will meet in Pool B Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Israel
- Numbers one to four reach quarterfinals