Editor’s note: The teams that competed in the Super Final, for which these previews were prepared, are the same squads that will hit the water in Athens. Thus, add the results of the just completed Super Final (Top three: Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro and Greece, in that order) and you have a good preview of the Olympic tournament later this month. Just shift the not inconsiderable value of the home water advantage from Team USA to Greece.
LONG BEACH, Calif. – August 1. – 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 finished first place in their groups to earn an opening
night bye and a trip to the semifinal round. Hungary awaited the
winner of the USA-Greece game, while Italy got the winner of Serbia and
Montenegro-Spain. Hungary and Italy are Nos. 1 and 2 in the world,
1. Italy (10-2)
Italy last won Olympic gold in 1992 under Ratko Rudic, but hasn’t seen gold at any major tournament since then. But a second-place finish at last year’s World Championships and World League Super Finals could be a step back toward the top step of the medal podium in Greece. Italy is led in the goal by Marco Gerini and in the field by Alberto Angelini. The brothers Calcaterra – Roberto and Alessandro – are a potent scoring force for Italy. The Italians sliced through the competition in Group A with a record of 10- 2, with both of its losses coming to Spain.
2. Greece (7-5)
The Greeks have as good a shot as any at capturing the golden hardware at
this summer’s Olympics. Greece is another team that has incorporated some
foreign blood into its game plan with former Italian head coach Alessandro
Campagna now calling the shots. Theodorous Chatzitheodorou heads the
talented group of Greeks that took fourth at last year’s World
Championships. The Greeks finished fourth as host of the first Super Final
in 2002. Greece finished with seven wins in the regular season and took
second place based on its three wins against 7-5 Spain.
3. Spain (7-5)
Spain was unable to duplicate its 2001 World Championship gold in its home
pool in 2003, but with center Ivan Perez still on the roster, Spain has the ability to surprise any of the world’s top teams. The Spaniards took fifth place last summer in Barcelona, but showed that they could wrestle and swim with the best of them. Daniel Ballart is one of the most accurate outside shooters in water polo today. Spain will be without the legendary Manuel stiarte, who retired after playing in his sixth Olympics in 2000. Spain took second at the inaugural World League Super Final back in 2002. Spain trumped Italy in a pair of games in group play and finished with the second most wins in the group, but Greece took three out of four games from the Spaniards to claim second place in the bracket.
1. Hungary (9-3)
Head coach Denes Kemeny and his troops have the dubious distinction of being the overall favorite at the upcoming Olympic Games. And with a host of talented veterans such as Tamas Kasas and Tibor Benedek leading the way, it’s no wonder why. The reigning Olympic and World Champion capped off 2003 with a gold medal finish at the FINA World League Super Finals. Hungary will be looking to become the first team to repeat as Olympic champ since Yugoslavia did it in 1984 and 1988. The Hungarians finished third at the World League Super Finals in 2002. The Hungarians absorbed one loss to each of the teams in its bracket, the largest margin coming in a 14-10 loss to Australia.
2. Serbia and Montenegro (8-4)
Serbia and Montenegro, formerly Yugoslavia, is one of water polo’s most
accomplished teams. Since finishing fifth at the 1999 World Cup, Serbia and Montenegro has medaled in each major competition, racking up bronze-medal finishes at the 2000 Olympics, 2002 World Cup, and 2003 World Championships and a silver medal at the 2001 World Championships. Serbia and Montenegro boasts one of the game’s most popular players in Aleksander Sapic. Danilo Ikodinovic and Predrag Jokic are two other standouts at coach Nenad Manoljovic’s disposal. Sapic finished the regular season as the league’s top scorer with a mind-numbing 44 goals in 12 games. Over one three-game stretch, he poured in 15 goals.
3. United States (5-7)
There may be no team in the tournament that has seen more improvement this
quadrennium than the United States, last year’s third place finisher in the World League Super Final. Team USA, under the guidance of famed head coach Ratko Rudic, has blended a physical, hard-swimming, European style of play with a little Western flavor, making it one of the most exciting teams in the world to watch. The team is led by three-time Olympian Wolf Wigo (1996, 2000), the slick-shooting menace that lit up the cage for 16 goals at the Sydney Games. 22-year-old Tony Azevedo has developed into one of the game’s most volatile offensive players, and Ryan Bailey has become a force for the U.S. at center forward. Azevedo finished as the league’s second highest scorer with 25 goals, while Wigo tossed in 16. This year marks the second straight year that the U.S. has hosted the Super Final. The U.S. finished the season on the momentum of a thrilling shootout win over Serbia and Montenegro.
There was more than pride at stake for this pre-Olympic competition in Long Beach. There was the spectre of cold, hard cash. The top finishing
team at the Super Final will earn the lion’s share of the $360,000 that’s up for grabs. Here’s the breakdown:
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
— Compiled from USA Water Polo Staff Reports