By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor
As I wend my way across the Atlantic by air returning to Brooklyn, it seemed appropriate to wrap up my experience of Budapest and the 2017 FINA World Water Polo Championships.
First, my congratulations to the winnersâ€”Croatia for the men and USA for the women. Both are deserving; Croatia for devising a strategy to beat a â€śgoldenâ€ť Serbian squad that hadnâ€™t lost a championship in almost three years, and then defeating host Hungary in front of thousands of rabid Hungarians at the Mecca for water polo, AlfrĂ©d HajĂłs Swimming Complex; the U.S. for beating Spain 13-6, thereby avoiding the rash of upsets that curtailed the title hopes of Holland, Hungary and Italy.
Based on limited feedback, including the comments of Serbiaâ€™s Filip Filipovic and the silenceâ€”at least in the English pressâ€”of Serbian head coach Dejan Savic, there apparently is a â€śblame the refereesâ€ť rationale for the unexpected loss of one of the tournamentâ€™s overwhelming favorites. Rather than weigh in on this debate, I will offer that the officials are ALWAYS to blame when things donâ€™t go as expected.
Serbia has been playing dominant water polo for an extended period and, except for the retirements of Zivko Gocic and Slobodan Nikic, their Olympic-winning team is intactâ€”and will certainly win again. Was it an upset for the ages? I leave it to others more knowledgeable than I to decide. Was it good for the sport? Absolutely! And, the next meeting between these two teams is must see water polo (if you can find the streamâ€¦).
The other overwhelming favorites at FINA Worlds were the American women, and they succeeded mightily where the Serbia men did not. They are the only team ever to have followed up an Olympic gold with a world championship the following year. While this accomplishment may not seem significant to someâ€”for reference, ask the Serbians what a challenge this is!â€”Team USAâ€™s head coach Adam Krikorian integrated six new players into his roster of 13. Of course, it helped tremendously that the core of his 2016 Olympic gold medalistsâ€”Rachel Fattal, Aria + Makenzie Fischer, Maddie Musselman, Kiley Neushel, Melissa Seidemann, Maggie Steffensâ€”returned; but the Americans had to contend with more change than any other contender, including the absence of goalie Ashleigh Johnson.
More than talentâ€”though the U.S. has the best base of womenâ€™s water polo talent in the worldâ€”it’s the culture of the American womenâ€™s program that makes it so successful. In his blog 3WireSports, Alan Abrahamson has an excellent article about the creation and sustainability of Team USAâ€™s winning culture, and how this culture continually connects the early pioneers of U.S. womenâ€™s polo with all the playersâ€”new and oldâ€”who make the cut for the world’s top womenâ€™s squad.
If thereâ€™s one regret about this tournamentâ€”which was otherwise brilliant for someone who had never experience European poloâ€”itâ€™s that the Hungarian womenâ€™s team did not make it through to the final. In an upcoming interview, Attila Biro, the teamâ€™s head coach, wonders how his squad, which has faced the Americans many times over the past few years, might have fared in a championship match in front of their home fans.
What will stay with me is the unforgettable experience of being in HajĂłs Arena Saturday night for the Hungary vs. Croatia menâ€™s final. There is simply nothing in the States like this atmosphere for polo. The excitement, the intensity was unbelievable. Even the blaring music, which was a non-stop pastiche of faded (and in some cases ridiculed) pop hits like the Macarena and Oppa Gangman Styleâ€”sounded surprisingly fresh, especially with the fans so engaged.
Of course, there are other things to do in Budapest besides watching water polo. Sadly I did not partake in the much-praised boat tours around the Danube, and was too preoccupied to fully engage in the tremendous nightlife of the 7th District where I stayed,
I did manage to get out and about. One thing I came across was Hot Rod Budapest (brand new!) that offers these cool little carts with benzene engines that can hit 60 KPH. Before anyone thinks that they can hop in one and race around the city, it turns out that these are used for group tours, and a leader goes out with group to ensure that no one gets a speeding ticket!
One other novelty I stumbled upon is the Makeryâ€”a new (?) concept in fine dining. It’s a DIY restaurant; they which provides the ingredients and a video guide on how to prepare the food; you make it yourself on a hotplate at your table. Itâ€™s a totally strange concept but somehow very appealing (full disclosure: I simply had breakfast thereâ€”which they prepared). The owners plan to franchise the idea, once they prove its viability. Look for this in a city near you.
In closing, Iâ€™d like to say thatâ€”from my perspectiveâ€”the 2017 FINA World Water Polo Championships were a smashing success. The venue couldnâ€™t have been better, the competition was for the most part exceptional, the management of the event was superb. I feel privileged to have witnessed to one of the sportâ€™s great moments.