As Budapest Celebrates, Hungary Men’s Water Polo Team Advances to Date with Destiny

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Festive Hungarian water polo fans at Alfred Hajos Arena. Photos Courtesy: M. Randazzo

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By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

BUDAPEST, Hungary. The party started early for rabid Hungarian water polo fans, as they gathered by the hundreds in front of the entrance to the Alfred Hajos Pool, eating, drinking and generally fortifying themselves for what most assumed would be a battle royale against an upstart Russian team in the quarterfinals of the 2017 FINA World Championships.

“I hope the fans have a very good feeling during the match,” said Lazlo Racz, in his mid-sixties and sporting a Hungarian national jersey while lounging with his wife Clara outside the arena.

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Queuing up for Hungary versus Russia

Racz clearly anticipated the joyous experience to come. Before all its fans were in their seats, Hungary had opened up a two goal lead. The score ballooned to 5-0 after one period and 8-1 after two, launching a raucous second-half celebrations. Stellar goalie play from Victor Nagy (15 saves) and an offensive explosion spearheaded by Denes Varga (4 goals) resulted in a 14-5 win and the Hungarian team’s first appearance in a FINA Worlds semifinals since 2013, when it captured gold.

Hungary advances to a semifinal match-up with Greece on Thursday. In Thursday’s other semifinal, rivals Croatia and Serbia will meet.

In remarks following Tuesday’s match, Hungary head coach Tamas Marcz espoused the “one game at a time” philosophy familiar to fans of American professional sports.

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Hungary head coach Tamas Marcz. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

“Nobody thinks about that,” Marcz said about looking past the Russians to a finals match-up against mighty Serbia. “We prepare only for one match. We don’t think about the semifinal or the final.”

Instead, he emphasized the importance of success in quarterfinal play.

“It’s the most important moment of the tournament to get into the best four team,” Marcz said. “We would like to play for a medal.”

Hungarian fans can certainly get behind that. Speaking with Peter Gal and his father Andras before the game, both nodded in agreement as to what’s really at stake whenever men—or women—represent Hungary.

“Water polo is the most important sport for our nation,” Peter said. “It’s our sport and every fan believes this,”

Given the historic rivalry between the quarterfinalists Tuesday night—at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Russia and Hungary played perhaps the most famous water polo match in history—one wondered what sort of emotions an opponent like Russia might evoke among supporters of the Magyar.

Turns out, not much emotion at all.

“That [does] not matter nowadays. We aren’t at the same level in water polo, we can be friends as nations,” Gal said.

Not in the water, where Hungary was decidedly rude, converting almost 50% of its shots (14 of 29) while going 7 for 9 with an extra attacker.

When asked what it means to hold the World Championships in Budapest, he added: “It’s a good opportunity to go to the final against Serbia. Hungary in Budapest, it’s very good to be here with so many supporters.”

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Hungary’s Balazs Erdelyi shoots over Nikolay Lazarev of Russia. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Given what’s at stake—a potential gold medal in the world’s next best water polo tournament to Olympic competition, it’s hard not to dream of a match-up for gold between a dominant Serbian squad—which decimated Australia 15-5—and the host Hungarians, who carry the weight of a nation on their shoulders.

Or do they?

“The motivation for these guys is to be the best—to be better than their opposite team, that’s all,” said Marcz of his players—then acknowledging the duality of playing in front of almost 7,000 of the team’s most passionate supporters and critics.

“Hungary always plays under pressure. But my players don’t feel it,” said the Hungarian coach, who also represented his country in a gold medal effort at the 2000 Sydney Games. “In a match like this, you’re happy to play in front of supporters.”

Then, in solidarity with Hungarian water polo fans everywhere, Marcz added: “We enjoyed this time.”

2 comments

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      ? Indeed! Budapest is in love with their team – let’s hope that their team loves them back.

      I can say that the atmosphere in Alfred Hajos Arena last night was electric. One can only wonder what tomorrow will bring when the Hungarians face the Greeks.

      M. Randazzo