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London 2012: Water polo kings in danger

06:59 01 August 2012

Hungary and Montenegro line up before their water polo clash

Hungary and Montenegro line up before their water polo clash

Archant

Hungary bidding for fourth straight gold

Hungary have won more gold medals than any other nation in Olympic water polo competition, but their crown is slipping.

Successes in the past three Games at Sydney, Athens and Beijing took their golden tally to nine and they have also won three silver and three Olympic bronze.

But they have lost their first two group games here in London and face a fight to keep their impressive winning streak going.

Inspired by my successful trip to watch Sweden and Norway’s women do battle at handball on Monday night, I returned to the Olympic Park early on Tuesday for my first taste of Olympic water polo.

And it was nothing like the Go Polo class I had attended at Brentwood School earlier this year as part of our ‘Try an Olympic sport’ coverage.

That was mainly for primary school beginners, wheras elite-level water polo looks about as brutal and tough as sport can be. It’s handball-in-water, basically.

Hungary’s meeting with the Soviet Union at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne became known as ‘Blood in the Water’ after Ervin Zadar was left with blood pouring from under his eye after a punch by Valentin Prokopov.

The match was played out amidst a tense political backdrop with communist Hungary attempting to break away from Soviet control at that time.

Police had to enter the arena to quell a riot as Hungary claimed a 4-0 win and the whole incident provided material for a documentary, released 50 years later, called ‘Freedom’s Fury’ which was produced by Quentin Tarantino.

There was no blood spilt in the nice new 6,000-capactiy Water Polo Arena, thankfully, as Hungary took on Montenegro, but plenty of dunking, leg pulling and general foul play, including the odd punch too as highlighted by the underwater camera.

An 11-10 defeat, following their 14-10 reverse against Serbia on Sunday certainly hurt Hungary’s hopes.

The teams marched out in white robes, like something from times gone by almost, before being introduced to the crowd.

And there was certainly plenty of red, white and green in the crowd in support of Hungary, as two referees prowled up and down the poolside, blowing their whistles frantically to signal a stream of illegal challenges in the water.

Drasko Brguljan put Montenegro ahead – after Hungary had been left a man short due to an ‘exclusion foul’ – but Norbert Hosnyanszky soon levelled in similar fashion.

And after Mladan Janovic put Montenegro 2-1 up, Hungarian captain Peter Biros got his side back on terms late in the first quarter.

Play restarted with a swim-up (or swim-off), which saw two nominated players sprint to the ball, which was placed on a plastic triangle on halfway.

And a big cheer went up from the Hungarian fans after Tamas Kasas won possession for his side.

Control of the ball is vital, along with drawing exclusion fouls from the opposition to open up space for quality shots, and teams have 30 seconds on a shot clock to make an attempt at goal before turning over possession.

A match lasts for only 32 minutes of actual playing time, but with the main and shot clocks stopping on every whistle, can take almost three times as long to complete.

Predrag Jokic put Montenegro 4-3 up with a fine top corner shot, which looked superb on the arena’s super slo-mo screen and goalie Milos Scepanovic made two good saves – much to his own delight – to deny Hungary a reply.

Aleksandar Ivovic took advantage of another exclusion foul – three such fouls and a player is out of the game – to make it 5-3, but Kasas tipped in a pass after Montenegro fell foul of the officials.

And after Brguljan cashed in to make it 6-4, Hungary’s Daniel Varga tipped in another pass before the half-time break.

“This is champagne water polo,” said the announcer during the interval, “but can Montenegro hang on?”

As it turns out they could, just, but it was a battle royale to the very last.

Two quick goals at the start of the second half proved key before Hungary hit back through Balazs Harai and Adam Steinmetz.

Vladimir Gojkovic put Montenegro 9-7 up and the water foamed as the players swam back and forth, going from attack to defence.

Biros kept Hungary hopes alive with nine seconds left in the third quarter and completed his hat-trick in the final quarter, with Harai also hitting the net again.

But Hungary just could not reel their rivals in and have a job on their hands to make it four gold medals in a row.

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