2007 brought us back to the FINA World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, where the men, now coached by Ricardo Azevedo, finished in 9th place, while the Gold Medal was won by Croatia (with Ratko Rudic as coach), Hungary in 2nd and Spain in third place. Meanwhile, the women returned to the top rung, winning the Gold Medal followed by Australia and Russia. The attention next turned to the Pan American Games held in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, where the men won the Gold Medal, followed by Brazil and Canada, and the women also won Gold, followed by Canada and Cuba. Thus, both teams were qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games.
The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, was silver laden for the US, with both the men and the women just narrowly missing the opportunity to make it a God Medal harvest. The men, now coached by the four-time Olympic veteran Terry Schroeder, fell to Hungary in a hard fought match, with Serbia taking the Bronze Medal. The women, again coached by Guy Baker, lost a heart breaker to the Netherlands with Australia taking the Bronze Medal.
2008 US Olympic Mens Team
2008 US Olympic Womens Team
I guess this brings us far enough along that what has happened following the 2008 Olympic Games is no longer history, but a current event. When Chuck Hines first asked me to write this/these article(s), he said to tell what I had seen in water polo over the years since 1945. It seems I digressed and made this more a history of the US National and Olympic Teams. I would like to wind this up with a little bit of my personal opinion. I still love the sport of water polo, but I am not really happy with the game as it is being played today. It has become too physical and too stagnated with all of the players in the front court. This leave almost no room for individual play and has the teams playing not to score so much as playing to get a player “kicked out” and giving them a man advantage attack.
The “hole-man” who used to be the center of the attacks on the goal, has been reduced to a person that struggles and wrestles with the player guarding them. In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s if the hole-man and hole-guard stayed in the offensive end of the pool, they did not guard each other, merely rested in the water next to each other. If the ball was passed to the hole, the guard did not dare contest the pass unless they had a clear advantage to the ball. They waited for the hole-man to get the ball and then they played each other until a shot was taken or a foul called. In today’s game the hole-man and hole-guard are constantly wrestling, whether the ball is there, or not. There is not enough time, if the ball is passed to them, to attack before the other players arrive and set up to pass around the perimeter. The center is usually fouled, so that he has to pass the ball back out, nullifying any offensive move. In the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s the center forward position was the dominating factor for the team. I can remember players such as Mirko Sandic from Yugoslavia, Svivos and Capo from the great Hungarian teams of the 1970’s and Mishveradze from the Russian teams of the 1980’s and Terry Schroeder from the US.
The greatest all-around player I have ever seen was Tamas Farago from Hungary. He was a physical specimen who could play any position in the game. I once saw him take a shot in a game when he was on the right side of the field of play, about 6 meters into his defensive end of the course. Time was about to expire in the quarter, and Farago seemed to be the only who realized this. I was sitting on the deck, just behind where he was positioned. He rose up and shot the ball, which hit the upper bar in the far left corner of the goal at which he was shooting. From my position I saw the ball and it never deviated, either up or down, or sideways, between he and the goal. It was unbelievable. As far as goalies are concerned, the best I have seen were Muscatiovic from Yugoslavia, Molnar from Hungary, Sharanov from Russia, Rollan from Spain and Wilson from the US.
Another position that seems to have disappeared is the sensational attacker. The Russian, Hungarian and Yugoslavian teams all seemed to have them. These were payers that came in from the wing, received the ball on the move and came in at the goal with quickness and were able to shoot the ball from any and all angles. Names that come to mind are Johnny De Magestries from Italy, Horkai from Hungary, Estiarte from Spain and Gary Figueroa from the US. All of these great parts of the game have been removed by the strategy of sending everyone into the offensive end of the course. I have never been able to figure out why, but the European players seem to have better “legs” than our players and their transference from vertical to horizontal is done with a much stronger move. Strange to say, since we grow up with balls and a hand-eye movement, rather the foot-eye movement of the Europeans through soccer, but they seem to be better shooters than the US athletes. When playing a zone defense against a European team, the defensive team will set their forward line about 2+ meters from the back line. This still allows a pass in to the post positions from outside, or a shot. With the US, they set up with 1+ meter between the front and back line, leaving nothing open but to shoot from the outside. This shows their lack of respect for our shooting ability.
Another problem is with the refereeing and the consistent interpretation of the rules. The foul of “to hold, sink or pull back an opponent who is not holding the ball” at one point in the 1960’s and 1970’s was explained in the rules as “a corner stone of the game, as clear and explicit and can only be interpreted in one way.” The words “corner stone” have been removed, but the rule certainly is not interpreted in only one way. I have always felt that at major competitions, the management committee should instruct the referees and the teams that the game shall be called in a specific way and that if a referee does not officiate in that manner, they will be removed from the tournament. I have heard this said, but not enforced.
At one time, a rule had been proposed to reduce the team size to 5 field players and a goalie and the course size to 25 meters by 17 meters. This was used experimentally by some nations and the FINA Junior World Championships in Dunkirk was played completely under these rules. We played an exhibition game at UC, Berkeley, with Russia, using these rules and the result was very exciting game with lots of scoring and outstanding individual play. There was room for the hole-man to operate, there were driving lanes and shooting lanes opened up. However, the proposal was defeated at the next FINA Congress, supposedly because the coaches were not in favorite of having to change strategies.
It seems that the coaches always want to “stretch” the rules, by seeing how far a player can be aggressive before a foul is called. I believe that the rules are still sufficient to make the game enjoyable if they are enforced consistently and the coaches, players and officials are all on the same page. We have shown that we have the ability to play on a level with the Europeans and the fact that many of our National Team players are playing professionally in Europe helps overcome the major advantage that the Europeans have held over the years, that of playing many more top level games consistently than our players have the opportunity to do. It is also easier to be a “star” player in Europe and earn a living from it. This is not always feasible for the US players and the players that devote themselves to the National Team are to be commended for their dedication and sacrifice. Another area that has grown over time is the “Masters” programs, both here and in Europe. This has allowed many players to keep playing for many years. The FINA World Masters Championships has many of the stars of the 70’s and 80’s competing. With the World’s this year being in Riccione, Italy, their concern for the number of teams entering and having enough courses available (they will have 5 courses and a warm-up pool), they have limited entries to 90 teams total. Our Masters Nationals in the US is second in numbers of teams to the National Junior Olympics.
I still believe that water polo has a place in the pantheon of great sports, but it will take all of us working with the same purpose to make sure that it does not disappear from the sports scene. I hope you have enjoyed these articles? It has really been a fun thing to reminisce with myself about the many experiences I have been fortunate enough to be part of. As I keep going through this, I seem to remember more and more instances that I would like to write about, but I was asked to just write a couple of articles, not the complete history of the sport. I always remember a salutation used by several of the Latin Americans that I have worked with over the years and would like to close with it.
This article was first posted on the American Water Polo web site
and they graciously allowed the Water Polo Planet to re-post it.