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14-09-2018: Waterpolo: Berlin FINA Men’s Water Polo World Cups 2018
Julian Real, veteran of Germany's 2008 Olympic squad, leads a rebirth in Berlin. Photo Courtesy: Sportphoto.shop

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

BROOKLYN, NY. After a respite to take in all that I experienced in Berlin at the FINA Men’s World Water Polo Cup 2018—and to finish transcribing an interview with Andrey Kryukov, Bureau Liaison for FINA’s Technical Water Polo Committee—here’s a stab at what’s going on with polo abroad, and just how radical the proposed changes to the sport are.

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This will therefore be a two-part post; later this week I’ll comment about the impact of the new rules.

What is happening with the re-emergence of the German men’s national team is nothing short of remarkable. A huge gamble taken by the German Water Polo Federation and its Chairman Rainer Hoppe succeeded brilliantly. Not only was there compelling action all week in the swimming hall of Berlin’s Europasportpark—including a bruising 10-10 tie between heavyweights Croatia and Serbia that may represent a passing of the guard—the home team’s success was noteworthy.

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Rainer Hoppe. Photo Courtesy: Matthias Beckonert / www.wasserballecke.de

From a stunning opening night win over Hungary to an inspired semifinal match with Australia, the hosts were clear winners. Not only because they pulled off a successful tournament but, by virtue of a fourth place finish, they qualified for the 2019 FINA World Water Polo Championships. This has the important effect of accelerating the team’s development by four years; meaning that Head Coach Hagen Stamm can focus on a possible berth in the 2020 Olympics, rather than wait until four years later and try for the Paris Games.

Stamm emerged as one of the event’s most engaging personalities. Regular references to his players as “my boys;” his background as German polo’s most illustrious player; and his bold decision to step into the breach and coach the national team despite the specter of failure that surrounds Germany’s unsuccessful Olympic effort in 2012—all of these factors point to his continued role in lifting up a program that reportedly will receive the necessary government support to prepare for both the World Championships in South Korea and an even grander prize: an Olympic berth.

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Carsten Schultz on the far right. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

Passion among a small but devoted fan base was noteworthy; Germany hadn’t been in this tournament for 15 years, yet there was excitement in the stands every time the home team played.

“This situation here is very good,” Carsten Schultz, who played polo for Spandau and other Bundesliga water polo teams, said after the German semifinal loss. “Winning against Hungary, winning against Japan—in Germany, water polo’s not a common sport, so this was a big push for the next step.”

A shout out must be given to the Australians, who—despite a one-sided finals loss to Hungary— managed their highest finish ever at a World Cup event. Aaron Younger took tournament MVP honors, and it appears an experienced core of Aussie Olympians—goalie Joel Dennerley, Richard Campbell, George Ford, Joe Kayes and Younger—has gelled with a new crop of players, allowing Head Coach Elvis Fatovic’s squad to take a great leap forward.

14-09-2018: Waterpolo: Berlin FINA Men’s Water Polo World Cups 2018

Aaron Younger. Photo Courtesy: Photo Courtesy: Sportphoto.shop

Younger, the Sharks’ captain, was deserving as the MVP due to his 11 goals and, more importantly, leading his team to one of its biggest wins in program history. A 9-8 quarterfinals win over Croatia, reigning FINA World Champions—earned on a goal by Kayes with less than a minute remaining—gave Fatovic his first-ever coaching victory over the team that he played with and coached for much of his entire career. What made this win even sweeter is that the Croatians brought nine of the players responsible for their shocking semifinal win over Serbia in last year’s World Championships.

This is not to slight what the Hungarians accomplished. After the surprising Day One loss to their hosts, Head Coach Tamaz Marcz’s team did not drop another match. Most impressive in reeling off a streak of five consecutive wins was a taught 12-11 semifinal win over reigning Olympic champs Serbia. Going down by two goals early was not a problem for the Hungarians, who got a monster game from Bence Batori, in what was a breakout tournament (14 goals) for the 26-year-old, a mere two months after the Hungarians were humiliated by an eight-place finish at the European Championships in Barcelona.

As things go, if there were some clear winners in Berlin there were also some decided losers. Leading that pack were the Croatians; given the depth on his squad, Head Coach Ivica Tucak had to be disappointed by finishing fifth. There were many extenuating factors—new rules, exhaustion, how esteemed this tournament is in polo circles—but Croatia brought perhaps the most experienced squad to Berlin and they didn’t make the medal round. Somewhere in Zagreb that’s got to hurt.

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Croatia’s Ivica Tucak. Photo Courtesy: Matthias Beckonert / www.wasserballecke.de

Serbia also missed out, but Head Coach Dejan Savic has this year’s European Championship title—his squad’s fourth in a row—to fall back on. Of course, one has to wonder how it is that neither Croatia nor Serbia advanced to a major tournament final for the first time since the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Was it the grueling schedule—with matches every day and rosters reduced by two players to 11? Or, was it the new rules, meant to reward speedy play and designed to open up offensive schemes; it might be suggested this means transitioning from the dominant Yugoslavian school to a motion offense favored by Japan or other non-Balkan teams.

Speaking of the Japanese, they finished seventh of eight teams, losing to the Americans in perhaps their most important match. The 11-10 outcome was typical of what is now to be expected when these two teams meet. Only once did either team hold a two-goal lead; when Alex Bowen hit for his fifth goal to give the Yanks an 11-9 lead with 3:20 remaining in the match. That Head Coach Dejan Udovicic’s squad held on for the win—and the prospects of qualifying for a berth at the 2019 World Championships until the last day—is testament to the resilience of an extremely young team.

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Not so happy returns for U.S. Photo Courtesy: Matthias Beckonert / www.wasserballecke.de

That they ended up sixth, while the Australians—who for the past eight years have traded eighth- or ninth-place in major tournaments with the Americans—grabbed silver, has to be an alarming development for Team USA. Fatovic, hired in 2013 within a few months of Udovivic, has been able to retain a core of experienced players who look poised to continue an upward trajectory of success. The U.S. has Bowen, who repeatedly demonstrates that he’s a world-class talent, and players including McQuin Baron, Luca Cupido, Ben Hallock, Alex Obert and Alex Roelse who need to compete at a higher level to realize their potential.

With a deal on the table to play for Pro Recco, Cupido has a path to this opportunity; if Nik Carniglia, Max Irving and Ben Stevenson find their way to play professionally (in Irving’s case, returning to the Italian Leagues) then notoriously fickle American polo fans may have some hope that a relatively experienced core will combine with talented youngsters Hannes Daube and Marko Vavic.

If not, then they might dwell on the comments of the Japan’s Head Coach Yoji Omoto. In recent international competition his squad has captured two big wins over the U.S. and is now looking to leap-frog the Americans for supremacy in their hemisphere.

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Will the Japanese get their hands on this someday? Photo Courtesy: Matthias Beckonert / www.wasserballecke.de

“We think we have reached the U.S. level, and sometimes we can beat them,” Omoto said in an interview during the tournament. “Benchmarking the U.S., we think we are in a good cycle. Now, we think we can look into a little higher stage.”

Of course, there’s the issue of the rules; there’s far too much here to put into this post. It’s a complicated story because in the space of two years Kryukov and many helpers from FINA are seeking to radically transform a sport that has resisted change for much of its existence. Will it work? Kryukov is “100%” certain it will.

One thing is certain; change is coming to both the structure and the rules of polo.

“We need to adapt rules to modern language,” Kryukov said, “we need to adapt to the times we’re playing in.”

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