On The Record with Atilla Biró, Hungary Head Women’s Water Polo Coach

Atilla Biró, Hungary's women's head coach, has one goal: book a berth in Tokyo next July. Photo Courtesy: FINA

At the 2019 USA Water Polo Holiday Cup last month, women’s teams from Italy, the Netherlands and Russia traveled to Princeton, N.J. to sharpen their skills for a final push to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But one top European team did not make the trip East. Hungary last visited the U.S. in 2016, prior to the Olympics in Brazil, when they barnstormed the East Coast, taking on the U.S. senior women’s squad with matches in Florida, Connecticut and New York City.

[Want to See the World’s Greatest Water Polo Players? They’re in New Jersey This Week]

The Hungarian women might be out of sight, but they — and Atilla Biró, their head coach the past five years — are not out of mind. Like their European rivals, Biró’s team is prepping for two shots at Olympic qualification. The first comes later this month, when the 2020 European Water Polo Championships will be held in Budapest. The winner on both the men’s and women’s side will qualify for Tokyo, unless it’s the Italian, Serbian or Spanish men or Spain’s women, who have already punched their tickets to the Olympics.

The other women’s qualifier is March in Italy, when as many as four berths will be awarded.


Hungary’s Anna Illes attacks at 2019 FINA Worlds. Photo Courtesy: Tsutomu Kishimoto / FINA

Biro hopes it doesn’t take until March for his team to book a berth for Tokyo. A former professional player who has traveled the world thanks to polo, Biro recently spoke with Swimming World about a 64-goal beating his team put on South Korea during the 2019 FINA World Championships, hosting the upcoming 2020 European Championships and what it will take for the Hungarians to qualify for a fifth straight Olympic Games.

– At the recent FINA World Championships in July your team put a big number on the host South Koreans: 64 goals. Why administer such a bad beating on an inexperienced team?

That was the first game of the championship for the South Koreans. They were really scared about the game. But, I couldn’t tell my players: “Don’t swim or shoot or play.” I told them to play like a training [session].  I couldn’t tell my players: “Don’t score a goal.” Because we didn’t know the goal number or how the difference is counted.

That’s all. I didn’t want to push them too much.

[On 1st Day of FINA World Water Polo Championships Two Numbers Stand Out: 64 and 33]

After that the South Korean team got better and better. They played much better against Russia and Canada.

– How do you prepare for a team like South Korea, in their first-ever FINA event. Was it unwise of FINA to have allowed a first-time entrant in what is an extremely competitive tournament?

I have respect for the host country. I enjoyed my stay in South Korea very much But I think [this] is a totally useless and bad situation for the South Koreans.

In 1988 in Perth, Guam played in the men’s Olympic Games qualifier [Guam lost all 7 games, scoring 18 times to 233 for its opponents]. I think it is not good for water polo. Many teams from Europe, like France, or Asia or even South Africa [are] much stronger. [South Africa beat South Korea 23-3]. I think it’s the mistake of FINA.

– How does Hungary’s 4th place finish in the World Championships prepare your team for its most important goal, which is to qualify for Tokyo?

I think my team is a getting better and better, step by step, from a one and a half years ago. After the FINA World Championship in 2017 [in Budapest], I rebuilt the team with young players. We had a big chance at the world championships against Australia [a 10-9 loss in the third-place match]. But we lost.

After the U.S. and the Nederlands, Hungary is the youngest team in the tournament. Hopefully in January and later in the Olympics we can demonstrate we have the potential to be [a] talented team.

– Given Hungary’s great success in water polo history how will it be for your country to host the 2020 European championships?


Duna Arena in Budapest. Photo Courtesy: FINA

I think the European Championship will be fantastic, one of the best in the history, held at the Duna Arena, which was the home of the FINA World Championships for swimming in 2017.

[This time] it’s only for water polo, with 10,000 seats for our passionate fans, [the] people of Hungary who love water polo. That is only one thing that I’m a bit afraid [of], too much pressure for the girls.

We are working on it, but it’s difficult to create the same situation, because we are not playing in front of 10,000 or 8,000 people. Hopefully we can have enough experience that we can play well and play for a medal.

– When you look at the European Championships field , what teams are you focused on?

Two groups of six, and like in the last European Championship, the first six — Italy, Hungary, Netherlands, Russia, Greece and Spain — are very good, going for the qualification and all the gold medals. The question: is Spain motivated enough after they qualified in Gwangju for their spot for Tokyo? I think the  Netherlands and Russia are the strongest teams, besides Hungary.

– Are the Spaniards so good that they should get to the European Championships final?

I have a big question about this, because I think the other teams will be more motivated for the qualification then Spain. But we’ll see, because in water polo anything can happen. That’s why our strongest opponents are Russia and Netherlands.

[On The Record with Arno Havenga, Dutch Head Women’s Water Polo Coach]

– Hungary has faced the Dutch a lot in the last couple of years. What will a Hungary vs. Netherlands match-up bring?

We have a lot of experience against [the] Netherlands. Four years [ago] at the European Championship in Belgrade, Serbia, we won against Netherland in the final. But two years ago in the semi-final of the European Champs, we lost to the Netherlands, who later won the [tournament].


Hungary’s Rita Keszthelyi looks to pass. Photo Courtesy: FINA

They changed some positions, they have young players who are  talented and very good. One of the questions is in goal, because they had a very good goalie [Laura Aarts] who is not playing now.

And the question is the same like in Hungary, if these young players how do they react in big tournaments? Will they play the maximum in these games?

There’s no question [players] like Sabrina Van der Sloot — one of the best in the world like — or Rita Keszthelyi from Hungary. They definitely will play well. The question is the young players.

– How does Keszthelyi, your captain, keep your young players on the path to success?

She’s developed [years] for this role and situation. She’s like a good mother with the young… Rita became a very good captain, and a real leader of the team. In the water a great player and outside a great captain.

– Over the past two years, Maggie Stephens played in Hungary and Ashleigh Johnson played in Italy. How does one decide between these two great Americans who is the world’s best player?

My vote was for Ashleigh in the [2019 Total Polo Player] with Maggie second and Rita Keszthelyi third. In my opinion, Ashleigh Johnson is definitely the best player now in the world, because the goalie is that much more important than 3, 4, 5, or 10 years ago. Now the goalie in water polo must be quicker and stronger.

If you have a good goalie you have a better chance to win. It doesn’t matter who is the center-back, or center-forward or the driver, but now in my opinion, the best team has the best goalie. Ashleigh Johnson the past year definitely was the best goalie, in the U.S. and in the world, so that’s why they’re going to win. Maggie is a fantastic player, a little bit more complex, like Rita Keszthelyi, mainly in defense, that’s why she was the second, and Rita is a fantastic talent.


USA’s Ashleigh Johnson during 2019 Holiday Cup play. Photo Courtesy: Sherie Key/USAWP

Ashleigh is playing like a gold medal goalie. Her physical conditions is fantastic; she’s really athletic, with fantastic leg work, so it’s very difficult to beat her.

– It now certain that FINA will reverse course and is going to allow a 12th player on Olympic rosters — with a 13th player in the stands. How does that affect your preparation?

Countries cannot afford two goalies in the game, and one field player on the stands. So, every coach is going to choose a field player instead of a second goalie. It’s faster play, more exclusion, more forwards, so that’s why I think nobody will put two goalies in the game.

– That’s interesting, because Adam Krikorian’s made a point at the Pan American games that he wanted a replacement in case Johnson got hurt. Now he can choose either Amanda Longan or Gabby Stone for his roster.

But Krikorian has it [easy] because he has two very good goalies, Ashley definitely will be the first goalie. But every coach for every team has got a second goalie, because in water polo anything and happen at any time. An injury means a change.

[Krikorian: Johnson, World’s Top Polo Goalie, Plays Field Because of IOC, Possible Injury]

But it’s absolutely, it’s the wrong way… to play only 12 players in a game.

Now that I’ve said before, you need to increase the players, to 14 [or] 15, because every sport has more players on the bench, more substitutes. Water polo is the only one sport who has less players as the game goes on.

It’s not a good way, I think.

– Dora Antal was a great story in NCAA women’s water polo as the all-time leading female scorer for the Cal Bears. What is her situation?


Hungary’s Dora Antal. Photo Courtesy: Hungarian Water Polo Federation

There’s no question about her talent, but last year she was off. She decided — and I was agreed with her — to play less. She played for a club in Budapest.

[Catching Up with Dóra Antal of Cal Women’s Water Polo]

After she graduated from Berkeley Antal [has] played in the highest level of water polo from 13, 14 years old. She needed some rest, but now she’s playing with us and preparing for the European Champs and Olympics.

– Do you support the idea that an opportunity to play and go to college in America is beneficial for European players.

It’s always a good experience to play NCAA water polo [in America]. Compared to the [professional leagues in] Hungary, or Italy, it’s not the big difference — and absolutely good for both sides.