By Bruce Wigo
BEIJING, China, August 9. ACCORDING to the professional odds-makers, there is very little to separate the top four men's water teams in Beijing. The favorite is the two-time defending Olympic Champion Hungary, closely followed in the odds by Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro. Spain, Italy, Greece and Germany are packed together for fifth through eighth place, with little to separate them. The USA men are long-shots, with odds of 80:1 against them for winning the gold medal and 15:1 against reaching the podium. Australia, Canada and China have almost no chance, say the gamblers.
The Olympic Tournament has 12 teams in two groups of six. The USA is paired with Serbia, Croatia, Italy, Germany and China. The other group of six includes Hungary, Spain, Greece, Canada, Montenegro and Australia. The winner of each bracket earns a bye into the semi finals. The second-place finisher of one bracket plays the third-place finisher of the other, with the winner advancing against the team earning the bye for the semi finals. Winners of the semi-finals play for the gold. Losers play for the bronze.
I understand why the professional odds-makers doubt the USA's ability to reach the podium. The Americans have had four coaches in four years and until recently, posted terrible results. But I think the USA men will be the surprise of the tournament when it begins on Sunday and here's why.
For the first time since 1992, the USA men will have more than three returning Olympians on the squad – they have seven – and most of the players trained with the team in the last Olympic cycle. While the 2004 team finished seventh, it was very competitive with all of the top teams and found itself in the Killer bracket in Athens, along with all three Olympic medalists. When Ratko Rudic was lured back to his native Croatia after the last Olympics, he was confident he was leaving behind a medal winning team for 2008. I believe coach Terry Schroeder has pulled this experienced and talented team back together and has them physically rested and psychologically ready to play. But there is another factor favoring the first American trip to the podium after a 20-year drought.
Over the past four years, I believe that the quality of men's international water polo has noticeably declined. I blame this primarily on the increased competition calendars of FINA, LEN and the European professional leagues. The importance of every game has made federations and their coaches rely upon the veterans and not risk playing younger, inexperienced players. This attitude has put the proverbial stopper on the bottle of talent. Experience is important, but history shows that the great teams of the past have always blended experience with youth.
Led by Tamas Kasas and Tibor Benedek, veterans of the 1996 Games, the Hungarians are still the class-act of the water polo world. Coach Denes Kemeny has successfully integrated World Junior MVP Denes Varga into the veteran squad, and he should be able to pull off the three-peat. But some believe too many of the defending Olympic champions have passed their prime. We'll see. If these aging superstars have an advantage besides their experience, it is that the competitive field is not as strong as it was four years ago thanks, in part, to the continuing dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.
In Athens, Hungary had its hands full with Serbia, but this time, nearly half of Serbia's 2004 Olympic silver medal-winning team will be playing under the colors of Montenegro. Adding to Serbia's loss, star player Danilo Ikodinovic was critically injured in a motor cycle accident and will miss the Games. Serbia is still big, strong and talented, but they are not as strong a team as they were in Athens.
When Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, they drained nearly half of the water polo talent pool from the second most successful water polo program in the world (after Hungary). In 1996, Croatia was able to win the silver medal behind Spain. After Atlanta, the Adriatic jewel fell on hard times until Hall of Fame coach Rudic, a native Croat took the helm. Rudic became a national hero with a win at the 2007 World Championships. But since that victory, his team has been inconsistent and finished a disappointing fourth at the European Championships, in July. Nevertheless, I'd never count out a Rudic-coached team.
Montenegro is a tiny country with only four or five water polo clubs. Still they won the European Championships in July. How? Weaker teams!
The first major European team to age itself out of competition was Russia, which failed to qualify for the first time in their Olympic history. Like Russia, Italy, Spain and Greece rely heavily on aging super-stars. In 2012 we should see a dramatic turnover in rosters, but it's not happening in Beijing.
Germany is the upstart, but just prior to the leaving for Beijing they lost one of their key veterans, Steffen Dierolf, to heart trouble, which will have a negative impact on their chances.
Australia, like the USA is another team that could surprise. They are young, quick and aggressive, but a lot will depend upon the officiating. If they are rewarded by the referees with exclusions for their movement, they could pull off some major upsets.
I give Canada a lot of credit for qualifying for the Olympic Games, but after watching them play in California earlier this summer, I don't give them a chance to advance in the top three. China will most probably not win a game.