Serbia, a country roughly the size of my own Bay Area but with half the population, shows us how to get a country excited about water polo. In a 2016 video, the European, World, and World League Champions exhort everyone–kayakers, radio DJs, children with leukemia, poets, and even bikers–to don caps and sing their team to “the throne.” Serbia won their first Olympic water polo gold medal in Rio 2016, defeating their neighboring countrymen, Croatia.
Eastern Europeans are passionate about water polo. These are countries torn by revolutions, assassinations, and war, which spills over into sport in ways that Americans would understand. Fistfights in the stands, hooligans attacking players in restaurants, and opponent’s flags set on fire outside the stadiums. Every match is a grudge match, which makes this combination of swimming, basketball, and pro-wrestling always exciting.
Too bad America doesn’t appreciate the game. Especially when Team USA is a threepeat World Champion, back-to-back gold medalist, and has won a medal in water polo in every single Olympics. Oh, not the men’s team. I’m talking about the women’s squad. This explains why our dominating water polo beasts, who would be mobbed by fans in every cafe in Serbia, can’t get the time of day in the U.S. Still, our women’s water polo team is a force to be reckoned with in a sport that calls for extraordinary speed, strength, and teamwork.
The Oldest Team Sport in the Olympics
The Scots invented water polo as an aquatic version of rugby. As if that sport wasn’t savage enough, the Scots thought it would be jolly to play in a muddy river. At 60° F. With water that chilly, you’d need constant movement anyway. In one early version, they rode barrels, but the typical play in 1890 was similar to what you’d see today. All you need is a ball and things on two side to act as a nets.
Early on, the ball was small enough that players could hide them in their trunks and swim underwater to the goal. The goalie could even stand on the riverbank near the goal and pounce onto opposing players coming in to score. Most early versions involved pushing the ball through opponents, with violence between the main point, like American football. One historian even describes a play called a “flying salmon,” where the player would climb on to the backs of other players and leap into the goal. Wheeee!
The game was popular enough to debut at the 1900 Olympics, making it the oldest continuing team sport in the Games. Britain, i.e. the Osborne Swimming Club of Manchester, beat Belgium, aka the Swimming and Water Polo Club of Brussels. The Paris club beat the de Lille club for the bronze, so France would have won a medal either way.
Only two Games later, when the British team beat the hometown favorite Belgians in Antwerp 1920, spectators attacked the players, who required security to leave the playing field. So began a long tradition of high spirits by players and fans, requiring security to stand by at the ready. In the ensuing Paris Games, France beat favored Belgium, but appreciative fans demanded that the Belgian national anthem be played in addition to “La Marseillaise.” Belgium beat Team USA 2-1 to gain second place, although the Americans lodged a protest, which forced the game to be replayed. The final score was again Belgium, 2-1 over the U.S. (The bronze-winning 1924 U.S. team included gold medal swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller.)
Earliest styles of play involved more passing and swimming, but sports historians say it was the Americans who “liberalized” the rules, creating wrestling moves like the “back strangle hold” and the “jujitsu toe hold.” Even when the ball was passed, players would leap on it together in the water, and whoever emerged from the scrum could push it towards the goal.
A Hungarian who engineered the next revolution. Bela Komjadi invented the “dry pass,” where players threw it over opponent’s heads to a teammate. Scoring became far more dynamic–soccer turned into basketball–and coach Komjadi created Hungarian team dominance that would last for 60 years. Curiously, Komjadi himself was involved in a scuffle. At the the 1932 Games, as the referee between Brazil and Germany, he called 40 fouls against Brazil and only 4 against the Germans. After the Germans won 7-3, the Brazilian players jumped out of the pool to throw punches at Komjadi who simply quipped later that “he didn’t know how to samba.” While accepting a few deutschmarks under the table, one suspects.
As Team Hungary won gold in five of the next seven Olympics, the games began to reflect both animosity from the play and animosity from the world outside. The stage was set for the most infamous incident in water polo and in Olympic history.
Blood in the Water
It was November of 1956 in Melbourne. Ervin Zador was the scoring star for the Hungarian team, favored to win, but facing a semifinal Soviet team full of rising stars. The Hungarians decided to taunt their opponents in order to distract them from successful passing and scoring. However, feelings ran high for other reasons.
Even before the end of World War II, Hungarians seemed to be fighting on two fronts, pushing out Germany but also fending off the Soviets. Nazis forced the Hungarian army to fight on Germany’s behalf in the Battle of Stalingrad, taking massive losses. Then, after the Soviets “liberated” Budapest, they moved in their own dictators. By October of 1956, the populace had had enough, and student protests had massed into an uprising, a revolution. By November 3, two weeks before the start of the Games, the Soviets responded with tanks back into Budapest.
De Coubertin envisioned the Olympics as a time when nations could enact a temporary truce to let people contest peacefully. But it’s hard to play a game against athletes whose government has imprisoned your uncle or sent soldiers with machine guns to surround your neighborhood. As the water polo match continued, full-blown fistfights broke out. A Hungarian player was caught on camera throwing a punch. Heads were systematically pushed under water, and one can imagine how many bruising kicks were aimed at tender spots in the churning splashes below. In the closing minutes, Hungarian scorer Zador took a haymaker full in the face.
Imagine Kobe Bryant or Steph Curry coming off the basketball court with blood pouring down his cheeks. The Hungarian spectators rushed from the stands and had to be held back from jumping in the pool to assault the Soviet players. The Hungarians eventually won 4-0 and took the gold over Yugoslavia, with Ervin Zador unhappily unable to play. After the match, more than half the team defected from Hungary. Zador ended up in the Sacramento area, eventually coaching Hungarian-American Mark Spitz in swimming (near Arden Hills, where I used to live).
The infamous game between Hungary and the USSR wasn’t the last time politics and sport in water polo became inseparable. In the 1990s, as the patched-together rule of Yugoslavia came apart, the territories separated once more into Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia/Herzegovina. However, the new president/dictator of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, began consolidating power and repressing non-Serbians in nearby Kosovo, leading to genocide and skirmishes that lasted for several years. Suffice it to say that decades later, Serbia and neighboring Croatia don’t like each other. Both teams win championships. There are near riots whenever they play, which is often.
At Least They Don’t Have Bands in the Pool
Because of Yugoslavia’s aggression, their national team–still consolidated in 1992–was banned from participating in the Barcelona Games, which prevented them from winning their third straight gold medal. This indirectly led to another weird water polo game. Italy and Spain had also become national water polo powers, and without the Yugoslavian team to challenge, Italy took gold in 1992 and expected to repeat in Atlanta. However, they were upset by the Croatians and the Hungarians were upset by the Spanish in pool play, which left Italy facing Hungary for the bronze.
The Italians trailed early 13-9 in the fourth quarter, but the Italians rallied to a tie with less than two minutes left. The Italian scorer put them ahead 16-15, with 50 seconds to the buzzer. When Hungary turned the ball over in their “last” possession opportunity, the Italians started to celebrate–you know where this is going. With two seconds left, the Italian bench dove into the pool. Two seconds left seems to invite mayhem. I was in the stands in college on that day when the Cal football team beat Stanford with five laterals that ran into the marching band. A penalty was called against the Italians, and with two seconds left, Hungary was awarded a penalty shot, which they made, sending the game into overtime.
During the melee that was the six minute overtime, seven players fouled out, and both head coaches were ejected. The Italians eventually won 20-18.
The Ferocious Girls
Probably because of its reputation for violence, women weren’t allowed into formalized water polo tournaments for years. The first Women’s European Championship wasn’t until 1985 and the first Olympic Game not until 2000 Sydney. As it turns out, there’s just as much scoring and action among the women as among the men. If anything, there probably aren’t as many punches thrown, and both women and men are subject to fingernail checks. Plenty of players of both gender emerge with scratches and bruises.
Collegiate water polo for women also didn’t start until the 1990s, and the first college champion team, UCLA wasn’t until 2001. But the UCLA coach, Adam Krikorian, turned his school into a powerhouse. Then, he did the same for the US national team. Under Krikorian, the U.S. women’s team rose to eventually win their first gold in London and became favorites in Rio. I covered the full story of their path to the gold in 2016 in my book, but, suffice it to say, there were plenty of strange tournament moments in this sport with its history of strange moments.
One standout to me was the stellar play of goalie Ashleigh Johnson, the first black woman to make the team. Johnson was named team Sportswomen of the Year in 2016, along with another of my A to Z favorites, Claressa Shields.
After Rio, the Italian coach said that the U.S. women’s team was a “team in another universe.” They proved their case by winning the world titles in 2017 and 2019, setting up another opportunity for gold in Tokyo, whenever those Games finally take place. The biggest problem for coach Krikorian is too many talented American athletes.
During lockdown, of course, everyone is at home. Once they can return to the water, Maggie Steffens, star scorer for Team USA will spend her off season in Europe as she did before, helping win European League championships in 2017 and 2018.
She’ll go play in Hungary, Spain, or Serbia, where they really do appreciate water polo.