Thais shock hosts to land women's water polo gold

RIDING on a wave of expectations, the Singapore's women's water polo team had overpowered all opposition before their match against Thailand at the OCBC Aquatic Centre yesterday.

The defending champions from the 2011 Games - the last time women's water polo featured - were confident that they could retain the gold and create a winning legacy like the men's team.

With a superior goal difference atop the round-robin table, they needed just a draw against Thailand to do just that.

But their arch-rivals, who were unbeaten going into yesterday's match, had other thoughts.

As their Italian coach Daniele Ferri said: "We came here for gold. We did not come for silver or bronze."

To the dismay and shock of the fervent home crowd at the Aquatic Centre, they succeeded, stunning Singapore in a narrow 5-4 victory to clinch the gold.

No wonder at the final whistle, the overjoyed Thais celebrated wildly, dunking Ferri into the pool, while the shell-shocked Singaporeans slinked off quietly into a post-match huddle beside the pool.

Tears flowed freely from both sides, albeit for different reasons. Several Singapore players were unable to hide their disappointment, sobbing on the shoulders of one another.

Thailand's Papimol Munchawanont, on the other hand, dissolved into tears of joy as Ferri draped a Thai flag around her shoulders. A jubilant Ferri praised his young team, who only have three players older than 21, labelling them as "heroes" in an extremely tight match.

Both teams were neck-and-neck at 3-3 after the first half, but Thai captain Varistha Saraikarn scored a crucial penalty in the third quarter that ultimately proved the difference between the two sides.

While Singapore tried hard to equalise, they were denied numerous times by the post and Thailand's 15-year-old goalkeeper, Satakamol Wongpairoj, who was in inspired form with 13 saves for the match.

Ferri said that his players' fitness was the key, and added that he hoped his side's success would spur greater interest in the sport back in Thailand, where he had only "20 to 25 players" to work with.

"The Thai women's team deserve attention and support by everyone. My wish now is that more players in Thailand start to play water polo," he said.

Singapore coach Choo Chin Cheng was gracious in defeat, saying that the Thais were the better side.

He brushed aside concerns that his team cracked under pressure from the expectant home crowd, and said that it was due to his side having to constantly attack to make up for the deficit that could have caused nerves to fray.

"They should have been calmer when we were a goal behind and we had to attack. This kind of pressure would have made them nervous," he said.

Despite the agony of losing the gold medal at home, the Singapore camp tried to put a positive spin on things.

Captain Gina Koh said: "We did our best, we have no regrets. I have to say the Thais performed well."

She also praised the home crowd: "They were great. They gave us a lot of support despite the fact that we were lagging behind for the whole game."

Team manager Wong Kok Piew also said that his team were already looking forward.

He added: "If you ask me, this is the beginning of many good things to come for Singapore water polo. We know what went wrong. It's not going to hold us back, we'll come back even stronger."

isaacneo@sph.com.sg

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