By Duncan Scott
LONG BEACH, Calif. – August 1. – THE 3rd FINA Men’s Water Polo Super Final was held July 16-18 at the Charter All Digital Aquatic Centre in Long Beach. The Super Final pitted the same six national squads that will face off in Athens for Olympic honors.
In a format not unlike the “regular season and playoffs” so familiar to fans of American professional sports, FINA conducted a regular season where eight of the top ranked teams in the world each played 12 games amongst themselves to earn a spot in the Super Final in Long Beach. The final several rounds of the regular season were held at various sites around southern California while the swimming Olympic Trials were using the big pool in the Long Beach parking lot
Three countries from each bracket of the regular season qualified, with TEAM USA guaranteed one of the tournament bids from its bracket as the competition host. With a 5-7 league season record, TEAM USA earned the third spot from its bracket without having to rely upon its host status. The world’s top six teams competed for prize money, prestige and psychological advantage just a few weeks out from the Olympics. The prize money split follows:
1st Place $100,000
2nd Place $70,000
3rd Place $50,000
4th Place $35,000
5th Place $30,000
6th Place $25,000
Non-Qualifying Team $25,000
Non-Qualifying Team $25,000
The competing countries and their seed in the tourney were: Hungary (1), Italy (2), Serbia and Montenegro (3), Greece (4), Spain (5), USA (6). Australia and Brazil were the squads eliminated by the regular season.
Hungary and Italy were given byes into the semi-finals to be played on the second day of the event. On day one, seed 3(Serbia and Montenegro) was pitted against seed 5(Spain) and seed 4(Greece) played seed 6(USA) for the other two semi-final spots.
Form was followed in both of the first day’s games played under the lights before a record crowd of 3,417 water polo fans, as the better seeded teams were winners, leaving Spain and the USA to play for 5th.
The USA-Greece affair was a real barnburner. The score was tied at 8 at the end of regulation; the score was 11-11 at the end of overtime. It took a sudden victory shootout to separate the squads, with Greece’s Georgios AFROUDAKIS being the first shootout competitor to score when his counterpart did not.
Serbia and Montenegro beat Spain 7-5.
The USA was shot down by Spain, 11-10, in the fifth place game played between the two semi-final contests, as the Super Final set an attendance record (5,085) for the second straight night. It took a sudden death penalty shootout for Spain to move past the Americans. It was also the second straight night that the U.S. lost in a shootout.
The first semi-final was a convincing victory for top seed Hungary over Greece, 10-5. Hungary came into the tourney ranked as the best team in the world and did nothing in this performance to change that status.
In a mild upset, Serbia and Montenegro knocked off Italy 10 – 7. Italy came through the World League season with the best overall record at 10-2, but Serbia and Montenegro (out of the former Yugoslavia) has a long history of top flight water polo and has itself medaled in every major international competition since the 2000 Olympics. In any event, a Hungary – Serbia and Montenegro final was set, and Greece and Italy would open the next night in a battle for third.
Greece handed Italy its second straight loss, 12-9, serving notice it is a medal threat later this month. And with home pool advantage, who can say what color?
Hungary earned its second straight FINA Men’s World League Super Final Championship with a 12-8 win over Serbia and Montenegro in front of another record-setting crowd. Hungary tacked another significant championship onto its glowing history by re-claiming gold in the 2004 event. Hungary entered the World League as the defending champion, as well as the 2000 Olympic champion and 2003 World Champion.
The crowds at Charter All-Digital Aquatic Centre got larger throughout the Super Final. Sunday's crowd of 5,157 set a new record for a non-Olympic international water polo game in the U.S., even without a hometown team in the water
2004 FINA Men's World League Super Final
Most Valuable Offensive Player Aleksandar Sapic (Serbia and Montenegro)
Most Valuable Defensive Player Tamas Kasas (Hungary)
Most Valuable Goalkeeper Denis Sefik (Serbia and Montenegro)
The most instructive aspect of the round-robin of matches over these few weeks is that the top levels of men’s water polo is very much an “on any given day” affair, as demonstrated by the fact that 6th place USA beat Hungary in one of the final games of the regular season. Despite Hungary’s great record over the last several years, the Athens event may be a wide open, exciting, and, above all, unpredictable affair. Watch it!
The FINA Women’s Water Polo Super Final had enjoyed a successful run at the Charter All Digital Aquatic Centre before not only the swimming Trials but the introduction of the U.S. Olympic Synchronized Swimming team. Just a few days after the swimming events concluded, the Men’s Super Final moved in and set three consecutive days of attendance records for non-Olympic water polo competition in North America. This is all the more remarkable in that the US team had lost the first night. Despite this, the crowds got bigger each day! After swimming had packed the stands for most of its sessions, the Men’s Super Final was a great way to finish off a wonderful summer of aquatic sports reaching out to a major metropolitan area’s spectator base.
Great job, Long Beach!
— Drawn from USA Water Polo Staff Reports and FINA Media Reports