It might be going too far to say that water polo finally arrived in the U.S. last week when the FINA World Water Polo Cup was played on the campus of California State University at Long Beach. After all, it's still possible to go into a longshoremen's bar, order a champagne cocktail, and not get into a fistfight over who's the best water polo goalie in the world. But Americans attending the eight-team event did get a good taste of the kind of world-class competition they will be seeing at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. And while U.S. fans were discovering the finer points of the game, the Soviet team burst a few bourgeois bubbles by going 6-0-1 against the best teams in the world to win the Cup.
The Soviets had won the Olympic gold medal in Moscow last year, but the U.S. would have gone into the Games ranked second in the world had it not been for the boycott. "We wanted to do in Moscow what our hockey team had done in Lake Placid," said U.S. Coach Monte Nitzkowski. "And we had a lot of kids who believed they could. We'd beaten the Russians at the first FINA Cup in 1979. The kids had their hearts cut out by the boycott."
Nitzkowski considered the FINA Cup "a chance to re-establish our credibility internationally," but he was also realistic enough to realize that with four players from the Olympic squad having retired, the U.S would have its hands full just finishing in the top three. The Soviets and the Yugoslavs, the silver medalists at the Moscow Olympics, were bringing their teams to Long Beach essentially intact. The U.S.S.R. team, in particular, seemed eager to prove itself against the boycotters.
The Americans, too, were eager for a showdown, perhaps a trifle too eager. They didn't have long to wait. The match with the Soviets fell on the second day of the week-long round-robin competition, with both teams coming off impressive tune-up wins the previous day. "We've waited almost two years to play these people again. Now we've got them on our home turf," said Nitzkowski, mixing his imagery.
May 10, 1981
Nitzkowski had coached three U.S. Olympic water polo teams, leading the Americans to their first medal in the sport in 40 years, a bronze at Munich, in 1972. He has had to overcome all the usual obstacles in amateur team sports, among them having his entire team together only on weekends. "We can't train together like most of the other great international teams," Nitzkowski said, "so we've had to develop a strong tactical game. We try to take what is really our only advantage—all of our kids are good swimmers so we have a lot of team speed—and use a mobile, attacking game, with some pressing defenses that come right out of basketball. We try to go for it, as I believe the kids would say."
The U.S. certainly went for it against the Soviets, with results that were at first exhilarating and, finally, ruinous. A water polo game is played over four seven-minute periods, and the U.S. had built a 3-1 advantage going into the third quarter. The American defense had held the U.S.S.R. to a single goal for more than 16 minutes, but in the third period the Soviets punched in four and forged a 5-4 lead. Then Kevin Robertson, the leading American scorer in the tournament with 19 goals, drilled in his fourth of the game with only two seconds remaining in the quarter, and the score was tied 5-5.
The key moments in most water polo matches occur when players are serving 45-second penalties, usually for being too aggressive on defense, leaving their teams temporarily shorthanded. What happens isn't unlike the power play in hockey, the only difference being that water polo has a 35-second shot clock that prevents a lot of stalling. With just under 2½ minutes remaining in the last quarter, the Americans were down a man and frantically trying to eat up time on the shot clock, when Drew McDonald turned and tired at Soviet Goalie Evgeny Sharonov. This caught McDonald's teammates by surprise, and before they could recover, Aleksandr Tretjakov had swum the length of the 30-meter pool and dumped the ball past U.S. Goalie Steve Hamann. The Soviets escaped with a 6-5 win in what was easily the most emotional game of the week. "It sure hurt to see the Russians kissing each other when the game was over," said U.S. Hole Man Terry Schroeder.
Just about the only thing the Soviets hadn't done to Schroeder during the game was kiss him, unless you count the Russian defender whose teeth left Schroeder with a puncture wound all the way to the wristbone. The hole man is the linchpin in water polo's six-man offensive formation, much like the pivot-man in basketball. He sets himself directly in front of the opponent's goal, and usually gets all hell beat out of him. This is strange, of course, the rules of water polo stating quite clearly that the players are almost never to touch each other. And yet there is hardly ever a time during play when a hole man doesn't have a defensive man with a foot in his trunks, an arm around his neck, and a finger in his ear. The players wear more than one swimsuit because the outer one is sometimes torn off. Water polo is the only sport in which a defensive player can literally undress his man.
"There's a lot that goes on under water that no one can see," Schroeder says. "I actually like it when my man has hold of my suit because at least I know where he is." The single exception to that rule of thumb, according to Schroeder, is a Hungarian defensive whiz named Gabor Csapo. The last time the two met was at the 1979 FIN A Cup games, and it was there that Csapo (pronounced choppo) repeatedly grabbed Schroeder in what one local paper last week described as "a sensitive area." Schroeder will never forget the game. "He wasn't just grabbing my suit," Schroeder says, "he was going for stuff that was connected to my body."
Water polo players are vulnerable to that sort of thing because they spend much of their energy swimming for an hour, almost without stopping. It's against the rules to touch bottom, but the players do more than merely tread water. Using an alternating breaststroke kick called an "eggbeater," water poloists are able to rise up out of the water and, for a period of seconds, at least, "stand" hip-high to the surface. Using only one hand, they pass the ball deftly around the offensive perimeter, leaping occasionally like big game fish. Most shots must penetrate a thicket of arms and a goalie whose coverage of the net is nearly total. It's a small target—three meters wide and less than a meter high—but the best players can pump the ball in at almost 50 mph.
Perhaps the greatest of all the players in Long Beach last week was Tamas Farago, 29, of Hungary. The 6'4", 225-pound Farago is a stupendous figure out of the water, with a mane of brown hair and a gold earring in his left ear. He has led his national team to medals in the last three Olympics and has been the dominant player in the sport for almost a decade. Recently he expressed anger at the way Hungarian bureaucrats ran the team. "Sometimes I feel that I am a circus lion who jumps through the fire," says Farago. "After the lion jumps, he gets a little bit of meat. Sometimes I want to finish with water polo—I don't want to just keep jumping through the fire."
Farago finished the tournament with 20 goals, six last Friday against Bulgaria, the third-best individual record in the tournament. His performance, however, wasn't enough to prevent Hungary from finishing a disappointing sixth (3-4-0).
The U.S. team never did fully recover from the early loss to the Soviets. After handling Australia 9-5, the Americans tied Spain 4-4, and then lost to Cuba 10-9 on Thursday night. The U.S. hadn't lost to Cuba in water polo since 1977, and Nitzkowski said later that the defeat by the Soviets had really "haunted" his team.
The Soviets proved they were human when Spain hung a 5-5 tie on them Friday afternoon. But given that small opening, the Americans again were unable to make up ground, leading through most of their game with Yugoslavia before being deadlocked 7-7. It was a game in which the U.S. got almost no breaks from the officials, always a critical factor in determining the outcome of games at the international level.
The U.S. finished Cup play in fourth place, behind the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Cuba, and if the Americans weren't exactly buoyant about their performance, there was hope that with seasoning and perhaps the return of a couple of retirees, 1984 could be a completely different story. Farago wasn't so sure. "On the American team," Farago said, "when a player becomes very good, he suddenly quits. The key is to stay together for a long time. The Americans always have the best athletes, but in 1984 how many of these players will still be together?"
And the Soviets? "They are the best," said Farago. "The Russians get a lot of good players, but only one or two of world class. Still, on a given day, if you took five players off this Russian team and put in another five, they would be just as good."
Sure enough, at the end of the tournament the Soviets didn't have a single player among the top nine scorers, but they had five with six or more goals. It was a commanding performance by a remarkably balanced team, and a clear warning to the Americans that they'd better be on their toes in 1984 when international water polo once again returns to, as Nitzkowski would say, the U.S.'s home turf.