GUADALAJARA, MEXICO - On the pool deck, a Brazilian water polo official stood waving his arms and screaming at his coaches and players and at one point had to be physically restrained.
Meanwhile, outside the dressing rooms, Canadian team head coach Dragan Jovanovic fought hard to contain his own emotions.
There were a lot of emotions this night at the Scotiabank Aquatics Center.
The Canadian men’s team had just posted an historic comeback, recovering from a 4-1 deficit in the second quarter to score a stunning 8-6 victory over Brazil and qualify for Saturday’s Pan Am Games gold medal final against their arch-rival, the U.S., with the winner qualifying automatically for the 2012 London Olympics.
The win over Brazil was all the more dramatic given that Canada’s Oliver Vikalo was slapped with a four minute infraction early in the match and the Canadians had to fend off the Brazil attack to remain within striking distance. And when Canada took their first lead in the fourth quarter and then scored to go ahead by two with 52 seconds left, a huge roar could heard from the Canadian bench.
The Canadians were triumphant and relieved, but also battered, some emerging from the pool with scratches on their neck and face, a brutally physical match.
And when it was over, Jovanovic nearly broke down.
“I just want to say that I’ve been coaching Canada, as the head coach this is my eighth year and four more before that as an assistant, and this is the first (real) winning team I’ve had in almost 12 years,” he said. “To come back the way we did showed incredible skill.”
Kevin Graham of Regina scored three goals, Justin Boyd of Beaconsfield, Que., added two with singles to Constantine Kudaba of Port Coquitlam, B.C., John Conway of Ottawa and Aaron Feltham of Lindsay, Ont.
It was the match of the tournament. Brazil jumped ahead 4-1, prompting Jovanovic to pull starting goaltender Robin Randall, a 31-year-old veteran of the national team, who help guide Canada to an eighth place finish at the 2009 world championships, and replace him with 20-year-old backup Dusan Aleksic, who plays for the Gatineau Water Polo Club. A risky move. Randall is a world calibre player who has played professional in Spain and Australia while Aleksic has very limited international experience. But it paid off. Aleksic was solid and the Canadian players played inspired water polo in front of him.
Jovanovic said replacing the goalie was an important part of the turnaround, but not the key, adding that Randall will start for the gold medal game against the U.S.
“Robin Randall didn’t have his day, but that doesn’t mean anything,” said Jovanovic. “I talked to him and he’s starting the final for sure. He’s an excellent goalie.
“The game changer was when we had a player down for four minutes for brutality and I think my players pretty much woke up at that moment,” the coach added. “The first 2 1/2 periods, that was not us. We were frozen. This is incredibly young team and they were probably frozen by the importance of the game, and they still probably had it in their head that we lost four years ago to Brazil in the semi-final.”
“But I can tell you there are few teams that would have been able to come back like that,” Jovanovic added. “This is a match that is really going to make our team grow.’’
Canada is ranked higher than Brazil in the world rankings, but the South Americans are a rising team as their government is throwing tons of money into their amateur sports program in advance of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The U.S. will be favoured to beat Canada on Saturday, being ranked sixth in the world compared to 10th for their northern rivals. Canada is the highest scoring team in this tournament, with Graham and Constantin leading the way with 10 each, but the Americans are a very strong defensive side.
Both teams finished 3-0 in the preliminary round, the Americans crushed Cuba, 12-2, in their semi. The loser of Saturday’s final has one last chance to qualify for the Olympics next year, but Canada and the U.S. want to stamp their ticket now. And after the comeback against Brazil, the Canadian team is flying high.
“We just can’t lose our heads like we did today at some points,” said Aleksic. “It’s going to be a great battle.”