Tears in the Water: Croatia Beats Host Hungary in FINA Water Polo Final

23-07-2017: Waterpolo: Servie v Kroatie: Boedapest (L-R) during the waterpolomatch between men Serbia and Croatia at the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary Photo / Foto: Gertjan Kooij
Croatian Men's Water Polo Team. Photo Courtesy: Beeldboot.nl\Gertjan Kooij

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By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

BUDAPEST, Hungary. Seven thousand spectators—the vast majority sporting Magyar red, white and green—had jammed into temporary stands at the Alfréd Hajós Swimming Complex in Budapest, their excitement demonstrably on display as they roared in unison for their Hungarian heroes. But, in what must be considered both a milestone and searing disappointment for fans of Hungarian water polo, the unexpectedly brilliant run of their national team in the 2017 FINA World Championships came to a crashing halt with an 8-6 loss to Croatia in the finals on July 29.

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The fans’ emotions, which surely fueled their team’s surprising success, also placed an unrealistic burden on Hungary’s relatively inexperienced team, which was playing in its first major championship final in more than three years, when Budapest hosted the 2014 European Championships. Hungary’s head coach, who, for the most part successfully, maintained a calm demeanor throughout the tournament, acknowledged his team’s rawness playing in the bright glare of a title match.

“We have to study how to play [in] the finals,” a subdued Tamás Märcz said after the match. “[The Croatians] played a lot of finals in the past four-five years, and had more experience.”

Then, striking a hopeful note on a night when his team reestablished itself as a major power in international polo even in defeat, Marcz added, “Maybe we are sad now but we will continue [to improve].”

For Croatia head coach Ivica Tucak, the feeling of being tops in the world was intoxicating.

23-07-2017: Waterpolo: Servie v Kroatie: Boedapest (L-R) during the waterpolomatch between men Serbia and Croatia at the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary Photo / Foto: Gertjan Kooij

Croatia’s Ivica Tucak. Photo Courtesy: Beeldboot.nl\Gertjan Kooij

“Everything functioned great, defense too, everything was amazing,” said an elated Tucak. “What’s most important is that we are the world champions.”

Explaining the significance of the moment, he added, “We wanted the title, we believed that we’ll win, and now, we are champions. For the first time, I see the difference between first and second place.”  Tucak’s team lost to Serbia in the 2015 FINA Worlds title match.  But in Thursday’s semifinal, Croatia turned the table on the Serbians to advance to Saturday’s final.

In an acknowledgement of just how important water polo success is to his country, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković—himself a former polo player—made the three-hour trip from Zagreb to celebrate his national team’s success. “Ten years after Melbourne, another gold medal at the World Championship is a fantastic achievement for Croatian water polo,” he said. “We are very happy and proud and look forward to more success.”

A Quarter to Forget

The opening period—played with many zealous Hungarian enthusiasts standing and cheering—was the worst the team had looked in seven tournament matches. Having previously thrived on that fan support, the Hungarians appeared overmatched, allowing four goals, scoring none, and digging themselves into a hole they were never able to escape.

The Croatians had expected that their opponents would be plagued by nerves playing such an important match in front of their countrymen.  “We knew that they were going to be nervous; it’s not easy to play in front of 7,000 of their own fans,” said Croatia’s Luka Loncar. “We knew that we had a chance if we start strong.”

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Luka Loncar beats Viktor Nagy. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

And start strong they did. On his team’s first possession of the game, Croatia’s Sandro Sukno sliced through the Hungarian defense on a counter and received a nifty pass from Javier Garcia to beat surprised Hungarian goalie Viktor Nagy and give the visitors a 1-0 lead. Only two minutes later, Croatia scored again as they quickly converted a man-up advantage, with Loncar beating Nagy from two meters.

Andello Setka also got behind the Hungarian defense at the 2:54 mark to notch yet another goal at two meters, before Marco Macan slammed home a shot that Nagy got a hand on but could not stop, giving Croatia a 4-0 lead and silencing the crowd.

Offensively, the Hungarians could seem to do nothing right. They tried to attack the middle of the Croatian defense by feeding the ball into Miklos Gor-Nagy, but defenders Macan, Andro Busjle and Ivan Buljubasic sagged defensively on Gor-Nagy, denying him the ball.

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Croatia’s Andelo Setka and Hungary’s Marton Vamos. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

The Hungarians earned three man-up advantages in the period but squandered them all, generating only one scoring chance on Croatian goalie Marko Bijac. Overall, Hungary misfired on their first five power play chances, through they did convert their final three.

But the second period saw the stirrings of a terrific comeback by the Hungarians. Marton Vamos, voted the tournament MVP on the strength of his 16 goals, opened the scoring on Hungary’s first possession in imposing fashion: the 6’6” left-hander rose so high that his shot traveled downhill as it beat Bijac. Defensively, the Hungarians were able to disrupt the Croatian passing lanes, while goalie Nagy found his form, making six saves during the period, and Bela Torok side-armed a burner past Bijac to bring the hosts within two by halftime.

Second-half Heroics Fan Fans’ Hopes

The Hungarians came out of intermission determined to get the equalizer, which they did a little more than halfway through the third period. First, Balazs Erdelyi got his team within one on a power play strike a minute-and-a-half in. Then, with exactly three minutes left in the period, Kristian Manhercz converted in a man-up situation to tie the match at four, causing the crowd to erupt in a frenzy of joy.

It was short-lived.

Garcia, a transplanted lefthander who had been a key contributor all tournament for Croatia, twice broke Hungarian hearts. Back-to-back exclusions on Gor-Nagy gave the visitors ample time to set up for a shot, and Garcia—originally from Spain but now a Croatian citizen—took full advantage. He released a rocket that Nagy had a bead on, until it deflected off a Hungarian defender’s outstretched arm and into the goal, breaking the tie.

Luck, which every team needs to win, seemed to have abandoned the Hungarians—it was a stunning turnabout for a team that had enjoyed so much good fortune throughout the tournament. On the visitors’ next possession, Garcia sent another missile that deflected past Nagy, making the score 6-4 and deflating the hopes of the thousands of fans at Hajós Pool as well as countless others watching on television.

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Croatia’s Jamie Garcia. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Hungary tried to muster a response, but when Croatia’s Sukno hammered home his second goal of the game on a power play three minutes into the fourth, it effectively put paid to any Hungarian title hopes. Their final two scores—back-to-back goals by Vamos with the man advantage—teased the hopes of Hungary’s fans until Sukno’s third goal of the night settled the outcome.

After the match, Viktor Nagy, whose emotional play and antics, including a trademark finger-wag on saves, was overcome with emotion. He described both the support of the team’s fans and his failure to deliver them a title.

“It was amazing, to play at home, [where] 7,000 people watch us,” he said at a press conference after the match. “Now I’m very sad and very sorry. We wanted to win tonight and we couldn’t.”

Wait till next year.

3 comments

  1. avatar

    This was a great day for waterpolo.
    The full stadium, outdoors…..cool!

    Nice article Michael!

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      George: thanks for your comment. You know better than anyone just how different water polo is played / perceived in Europe from America. What I will remember is the GREAT atmosphere—music and cheering and tremendous excitement—that we in the U.S. simply don’t get to enjoy.

      With thanks,

      M. Randazzo