x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Hungary has a pool of experienced players for Olympic team

Having not lost an Olympic match since Sydney 2000, and with the majority still playing, the nation expects another gold medal.

Hungarian national water polo coach Denes Kemeny, centre, has kept together the team he formed for the Games in 2000.
Hungarian national water polo coach Denes Kemeny, centre, has kept together the team he formed for the Games in 2000.

When the Hungarian water polo team filed in for practice at the national aquatics centre in Budapest last week, pool workers sneaked nearer to take a peek. Everyone wants to catch a glimpse of the country's most popular athletes before they bid for a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in London next month.

Four members of the squad, plus coach Denes Kemeny, are preparing for their fourth Olympic Games. They have won the men's gold medal in the last three Games and not lost a match in an Olympic pool since the 2000 Games in 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 of all the teams 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 said as his players grouped up in fours in the pool and practised shooting. They stuck ball after ball in the same spot in the goal.

"The Hungarian team definitely does have a shot, even if we have narrowly lost a crucial game or two recently," he said. "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. Great Britain are next with four golds, though their last was in 1920.

Hungarian fans have become so spoiled on the success 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 get bogged down by 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 keeps the team motivated 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," Szecsi said. "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 US 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 US 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 final]."

Hungary started their preparations late but would be in top form by August, the 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."

Kemeny built a very young team for the Sydney Games, many of them barely out of their teens, and shaped them into a formidable squad. After Sydney, Athens, and Beijing, the core of that team is still around, older but ready to roll again in Londo.

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."

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