What finally put the wild world of water polo back in order last week, after six days of upsets and mayhem at the III FINA Water Polo World Cup in Malibu, Calif., were the final 45 seconds of Saturday morning's U.S.S.R.-West Germany game. At stake was the gold medal, with the Soviets needing a victory to win the round-robin tournament and the surprising Germans—seeking their first world title since 1928—needing only a draw. With 45 seconds left, Germany had its tie, 5-5. But the Soviets, defending world, Olympic and World Cup' champions, had the ball, and that spoiled the German strategy. "We believe that if we keep the ball, the opponent cannot shoot at us," said German Coach Nicolai Firoiu.
"Vinnie Lombardi used to say that too," said one bemused meet official.
In water polo, a team consists of six field players and a goalie who all have license to kick, shove, hold, elbow and all but drown their opponents. Old Vinnie would have loved it. Players can vanish from the surface with frightening suddenness, as if dragged under by Jaws III. Or by 6'6", 227-pound Gabor Csapo (pronounced CHOP-po) of Hungary, who has been known to leave tooth marks. Players also disappear when a referee ejects them.
Trouble is, ejections are damaging to one's team. When Germany's 6'5½", 212-pound Thomas Loebb was whistled out with 45 seconds remaining for pummeling Soviet hole man (the water polo equivalent of a basketball center) Georgi Mshvenieradze, Loebb's team was a man short. Twelve seconds later, the 6'1¼", 214-pound Mshvenieradze fired the ball into the upper left corner of the net, and the Soviets led 6-5.
This so angered Germany's Roland Freund, the man assigned to Mshvenieradze in Loebb's absence, that he cursed himself—and was promptly kicked out of the game. A referee from Holland mistakenly thought Freund's comment had been directed at him.
Because of Mshvenieradze's goal, Loebb was allowed to return to the game, which left Germany still one man short. While Loebb went into the hole, the West Germans passed the ball back and forth, hoping one of their excellent outside shooters might see an opening. Instead, as time dwindled, they saw Loebb being held, pushed and sat on. With five seconds to go one Soviet hatchetman was ejected, and four seconds later another one was sent packing. But even with a five-on-four advantage, the Germans couldn't penetrate. Soviet Goalie Evgeni Sharonov is peerless, and the men around him work like a choke chain. Here, they forced a last-second shot from about 16 feet that flew high over the goal cage. The Soviets were champions. The natural order was restored.
Until then, virtually no team had played to form at the eight-day, eight-nation tournament, which the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee conducted—with encouraging efficiency—as a dry run for next summer's Olympic water polo competition. For example, Hungary, a traditional power in the sport, failed to win any of its seven games and finished next to last. Italy, meanwhile, which shouldn't even have been in Malibu, won the bronze medal. The Italians, ninth-place finishers at last year's World Championships in Ecuador, were added to the field only after No. 7 Yugoslavia turned down an invitation. Even the mighty Soviets lost an early game 8-7 to then lightly regarded Spain, an upset so stunning that afterward four European newspapers, thinking their wire machines had malfunctioned, called the meet's press center asking for the real score. "There are five, maybe even six teams that can win the Olympic Games," said U.S. Coach Monte Nitzkowski, and an equal number had a shot at the World Cup title. As Spanish Coach Manuel Ibern put it midway through the tournament, "Every day there's a different monster in front of me."
Monsters weren't the only notable sights in Malibu. Firoiu found it "difficult" to keep control of his German players "because there are so many beautiful women." Soviet Coach Boris Popov, after watching Tom Hermstad of Seal Beach, Calif. officiate the U.S.S.R.'s 6-6 tie with Italy, railed that "the American referee was bad. He was simply unobjective and unqualified." By way of reply, Hermstad showed up at the Soviet-West German game in a T shirt that read: UNOBJECTIVE AND UNQUALIFIED. Even the persistent sunshine was troublesome. Dutch star Constantijn van Belkum, who shared the tournament scoring title (19 goals) with Spain's Manuel Estiarte, got so badly sunburned that his play suffered noticeably in two games.
The biggest surprise, however, was the success of the West Germans, who essentially used only eight field players in the entire tournament—13 is normal—and of small, quick teams like the Italians and the fifth-place Spaniards. The Germans relied on a veteran lineup that featured Loebb, Freund, a lanky, long-range gunner named Frank Otto and Hagen Stamm, an adroit passer and ball stealer. Of Otto, a lefthander with a 50-mile-per-hour shot, Firoiu said, "He takes his place on the list of the best scorers in the world. Sometimes he remembers that list and scores five goals." Against Cuba Otto remembered and, sure enough, scored five times, leading his team to an 11-7 win. Stamm, on the other hand—he uses his right—showed a knack for short bazooka shots that earned him the nickname Phi Stamma Jamma. That doesn't translate into German. Stamm's only trouble was with a persistent stomachache that Firoiu insisted had nothing to do with his team's known partying habits. "No. Hagen doesn't drink," said Firoiu. adding with a smile, "For the others, I wouldn't put my hand in the fire."
Spain and Italy, both young teams, displayed more fire than the sport has recently seen. For years the game has been dominated by physically imposing, methodical squads like the Soviets and Hungarians, who use their hole men the way Ohio State used to use its fullbacks: They hand the ball to the nearest Choppo and let the Yugoslavs fall where they may. Spain and Italy, however, swam circles around opponents and showed dazzling talent. The Spaniards, in particular, seem to have the team of the future. In Estiarte, a lithe, 21-year-old soldier from Barcelona, Spain has the sport's next superstar, a successor to Tamas Farago of Hungary, who retired in 1981. Estiarte, unable to train properly for the last five months while stationed in North Africa, nevertheless put the World Cup defenders through 28 minutes (the length of a game) and more than a mile (the distance generally swum during a game) of Manuel labor. No one could stay with him, and few goalies could handle his shots, which came as quick as a splash. Not surprisingly, U.S. college water-polo coaches have started recruiting him.
In the meet's final game on Saturday afternoon, Estiarte fired in three goals to help Spain tie the U.S. 5-5. Thus the Americans, voted co-favorites with the U.S.S.R. by coaches before the meet, finished fourth. And so continued the U.S.'s spotty tradition in the sport: little success until a surprise bronze medal at the 1972 Olympics; failure to qualify for the 1976 Games; a team that had a good shot at the 1980 Olympic gold; a dismal sixth-place finish in the 1982 World Championships.
It should be noted that American water-polo players work at a disadvantage in international competition. Older than athletes in most amateur sports (average age: 25), they have to hold real jobs while they train—no government subsidies here—and they must train as a unit. Since last fall, Nitzkowski and his assistants have spent two nights a week coaching a group of players in Southern California and two other nights coaching a bunch in Northern California. Every weekend, one group arrives at the other's workout site for a plenary session. "It's been crazy," says Nitzkowski.
Still, with an intense schedule of meets and training camps set up for next year, including week-long get-togethers with both the Italian and West German teams, Nitzkowski thinks the U.S. will be ready for the 1984 Olympics. "That's the only competition that really matters," he says. "Besides, we didn't have a good 1971 before we won that bronze medal."
Part of the difficulty in defeating the Soviets for a gold medal next summer will be physically outplaying a team that rarely errs and has good players two deep. But the real key may be to break through a psychological barrier. "The Russians are the Muhammad Ali of water polo," says Italian Coach Gianni Lonzi. "Unfortunately, you are a little afraid of them."
When Firoiu was asked if the best team had won the tournament, he didn't even hesitate. "Sicher," he said. Then he answered in English, "Absolutely."