Twenty years ago, as he stood on a medal stand in Montreal with
gold draped around his neck, Gyorgy Horkai had no doubt that
Hungary's water polo dynasty would last forever. "So different
than today," Horkai, now Hungary's coach, said yesterday at the
Georgia Tech Aquatic Center. "In Montreal we play, we win. We
play, we win. We didn't understand. Then the rest of the world
caught us. Any of seven teams could win gold here."
For half a century Hungary was like the Yankees of the 1950s,
the Celtics of the '60s, the Steelers of the '70s. Then came the
Eastern bloc's boycott of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, which
ended Hungary's run of winning medals in 12 Olympics. Many of
the country's premier players started leaving for professional
leagues far from home. Hungary was fifth at the 1988 Seoul Games
and in Barcelona four years later.
Today the stars are staying home to rebuild their nation's water
polo program, and under Horkai's tutelage this team has emerged
as one of the two gold medal favorites in Atlanta. Hungary
clinched the Pool A title yesterday with a surprisingly easy
12-8 win over archrival Yugoslavia. Hungary and Italy, the
dominant Pool B team, both finished round-robin play 5-0 and are
on a collision course to battle for the gold on Sunday.
"Everybody's thinking about it," Horkai said of the Hungarians'
quest for a gold, "but no one's talking about it."
Everyone seems to fear Italy, and with good reason. The Italians
won the gold in Barcelona and at the quadrennial world
championships in 1994. They're physical, quick and smart, and
they have something that many great water polo teams have: a
knack for working the officials in a sport in which the judgment
call is king and one-man advantages often lead to easy goals.
"Italy's game was to provoke us, and obviously they succeeded,"
Dubravko Simenc of Croatia said after a teammate was ejected for
kicking an Italian in Italy's 10-8 win on Monday.
"Unfortunately, Italy has a reputation, and we are the small
country of Croatia."
Tibor Benedek, Hungary's 24-year-old star, admits that his
team's road to the gold would be a lot smoother if it didn't
have to cross paths with the Italians. "All of our group does
not want to play Italy," he said yesterday. Italy, however,
can't be too excited about the prospects of facing Benedek, who
may be the hottest player in the water. He has scored 12 goals
at the Olympics, including three against Yugoslavia. His shots
curve and skip off the water like fast knuckleballs. "Starting
at age 14," he said in broken English, "I practiced my shot 10
hours in the pool a day. But it will matter only if we win."
One Hungarian assistant coach estimated that about a third of
his country's citizens watched the telecast of the match against
Yugoslavia. But Horkai said there was no dancing in the streets
of Budapest. Not yet, anyway. "No, not at all," he said. "The
people are starting to expect this again." Just like the good
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Mirko Vicevic (blue) of Yugoslavia battles Hungary's Tamas Kasas for possession.