BUDAPEST (Reuters) - When the Hungarian water polo team filed in for practice at the national aquatics centre last week, pool mechanics sneaked nearer to take a peek. Everyone wants to catch a glimpse of the country’s most popular athletes before they go for a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
Four members of the squad, plus coach Denes Kemeny, are preparing for their fourth Olympics. They have won the men’s team gold medal in the last three Games and not lost a match in an Olympic pool since Sydney.
While keeping the core of the squad together over four Olympics means the average age of the Hungarian team will probably be the highest in London, Kemeny says Hungary still had what it takes to win gold.
“You can see whether a team has a shot at the gold or not,” Kemeny told Reuters as his players grouped up in fours in the pool and practiced shooting. They stuck ball after ball in the same spot in the goal a dozen times or more.
“The Hungarian team definitely does have a shot, even if we have narrowly lost a crucial game or two recently,” he added. “You have to be pretty brave to bet serious money against Hungary scoring another gold medal.”
Hungary are the Olympics’ most dominant men’s water polo team with nine titles. Britain are next on the list with four golds, though their last was in 1920.
Fans have become so spoiled on the success over the years that every time the team go to a major tournament they are expected to bring home the gold.
Despite expectations being at their highest at the Olympics, Kemeny does not worry about the pressure.
“This will be the 30th major tournament we go to under my leadership,” he said. “There was not a single time fans expected anything but gold. We’re used to this. Moreover, we go to London calmer than others who have yet to win.”
Goalkeeper Zoltan Szecsi, one of the team’s triple Olympic champions, said winning was like a drug, keeping them motivated game after game even as age crept up on them.
“If you win once, and you know what it feels like, I don’t think there’s greater motivation than to be there again,” said Szecsi. “You need to look after your body, you need to rest and prevent injuries. That’s all.”
The competition in London is likely to be more open than at previous Olympics as the depth of talent has grown from two gold medal contenders to a handful of teams that could take the title.
“Athens was about Hungary versus Serbia, no doubt,” Szecsi said. “Beijing was too, and a few dark horses. Now, there are as many as six teams who could pull off a gold.”
Serbia has been a perennial opponent and boasts some of the best players in the world. The reigning world champions are Italy while teams such as Montenegro and the United States have also given Hungary trouble in recent years.
The U.S. team were unkind hosts to Hungary recently, beating them twice in exhibition games. Still, Kemeny said he would be surprised to see the Americans win their first water polo gold since St. Louis 1904, when only U.S. teams competed in the event.
“The American team is very good,” Kemeny said. “They did beat Croatia in Beijing, and they also beat the Serbs. But they can’t beat three teams of that level. We were probably lucky to be the third such team they met (in the finals).”
Hungary started preparations late but would be in top form by August, players said. Their focus was not on their potential opponents right now, they were more concerned about becoming complacent or being burdened by expectation.
”If I wasn’t a Hungarian water polo player, I would say it’s fantastic to compete at an Olympic level or get a medal of any kind,“ Gergely Kiss said. ”But we have gone for nothing but gold ever since I played in my first European championship game before I turned 20. And we still do.
“Hungarian water polo has been popular for a century,” Kiss said. “We have a certain mindset, a toughness, which I trust will come out once again.”
Asked what made Hungary such a perennial powerhouse in the sport, coach Kemeny said it was the thermal waters that bubble up everywhere in the country and allowed it to run warm water pools year-round decades before heated pools became the norm.
“In colder waters (opponents) mostly just swam, and they couldn’t handle the ball as well as us,” he said. “It’s like the sandy beaches in Brazil, which force football players to tackle the ball in the air and pass skillfully. This environment nurtures talent in ways that is impossible to replicate.”
That is not to say Hungary have enjoyed uninterrupted water polo success. After a streak of 12 straight podium finishes from 1928 to 1980, Hungary went without an Olympic medal again until Kemeny led them to gold in 2000.
Kemeny built a very young team, many of them barely out of their teens, and shaped them into the most formidable squad the sport has ever known. After Sydney, Athens, and Beijing, the core of that team is still around, older but ready to rock.
Kemeny held the group together by challenging them for their spots on the roster from tournament to tournament, urging young players to try to force out the incumbents.
“There needs to be constant pressure from the juniors,” he said. “This team did change even after it won gold medals ... A healthy rivalry has made the team strong time and time again.”
While the players know they must fight for each spot, the mood at the pool did not reflect the impending cut that will see the roster trimmed from 18 to the final 13 in a matter of weeks as playful banter and roaring laughs echoed in the stands.
Those who know the team are sure the old core will remain intact for now but a revamp is expected once the London Games are over.
“Even then I don’t expect seismic moves,” said Daniel Varga, who first got onto the team in Beijing. “It will be impossible to replace the current greats, who are exceptional characters ... but the new blood is right there too.”
“Hungarian water polo is the sum of a century’s practice, of cheeky, brainy improvisations. Some people don’t even understand some of the things we do, the technical bravado. It’s because of that entire century. We all have that in us.” (Additional reporting by Laszlo Balogh; Editing by Peter Rutherford)