It shapes up as a classic confrontation: water polo's best offensive player, Spain's Manuel Estiarte, going one-on-one with the best goalie, Craig Wilson of the U.S. Sure, it's a team sport, but the gold medal may well be determined by the winner of this individual showdown.
Estiarte, 30, was the leading goal scorer in both the '84 and '88 Olympics, with 34 and 27 goals, respectively. "He is an incredibly complete player," says Wilson, 35, also a veteran of two Olympics. "When the ball changes hands, he is the first one racing toward the other goal, so he gets a lot of breakaways. He can go sidearm, three quarters and overhand, which is rare in water polo. But if you pay too much attention to him, Spain has a great array of players who can hurt you."
By the same token, the Spaniards have reason to fear the 6'5" Wilson, whose aggressiveness in ranging far from the net to challenge opponents has revolutionized goaltending. In the FINA World Cup won by the U.S. last year in Barcelona, Wilson made 49 saves in five games, including eight in the 7-6 win over Yugoslavia for the championship. Still, his most memorable moment in that game came not on a save but on a long outlet pass to Erich Fischer, who then lobbed the game-winner past the Yugoslav goalie. "I do try to intimidate," says Wilson. "It helps that I'm mobile, with long arms."
In last year's World Cup, the U.S. beat Spain in the semifinals 6-5 as Wilson held Estiarte to one goal. In Barcelona the Independent Team, nè Yugoslavia, will be the team to beat if it is in top form following its last-minute inclusion in the Games. Otherwise, Spain and the U.S. figure to be the favorites. "We know we can beat Spain," says Wilson. "But they've been playing well, and they'll be in front of their own fans. That also means they'll be facing the most pressure."
And they'll be facing Wilson.
OTTO GREULE/ALLSPORT USA