Badass water polo hombres make for kick-ass final in Rio

Serbia get the better of Croatia in cracking Olympic decider between Balkan rivals


It’s Saturday evening and all of a sudden mist is swirling through the mountains overshadowing Olympic Park and the sky is low and grey and the riot of colour is absent and it is raining steadily, as if Rio has suddenly and without warning merged with Ballyhaunis.

The atmosphere is brooding and menacing so the only sensible thing to do is to go along and watch the men of Serbia and Croatia go hell for leather for the gold medal in the water polo. Croatia are playing for a consecutive gold medal. Serbia, meanwhile, are the reigning world champions and their coach Dejan Sevic noted that at home, people would “be waiting to cut our heads off if we don’t win gold.” Needless to say, there is a bit of residual tension between the neighbouring countries. So you don’t have to be an expert to understand , to use IOC president Thomas Bach’s favourite phrase, that shit was about to get real.

In the pool, as the teams come out, the place is as steamy as a Florida swamp and the DJ is moving between Blur and what few Balkan sounding tunes he has on his sound system , which contributes to a manic sense of anticipation in the arena.

Throughout the Olympics, they have been holding the water polo over the Maria Lenk arena, a retro building in the corner of the park filled with long corridors and narrow stairwells, as if trying to keep the sport out of sight. Everyone knows that water polo has a reputation for untrammelled lawlessness and that it is about the most insane variation of sport ever invented by mankind. But for the final, they moved it to the glamour of the main pool, where the swimming had been held.

There are several unexpected aspects to water polo but the first is that the teams come out into the arena wearing their bath robes, as if the players have summoned from sleep to answer a national call and haven’t had time to change.

The other thing is that they are, to a man, genuinely hardy looking. Now, it is almost impossible to maintain a security-guard-at-the-door-of-a notorious-trash-metal-club-in-East-Berlin type badass veneer while wearing a luxuriant bath robe designed in your national colours. But it can’t be emphasised enough that the general scary-ass Central European toughness of these hombres is not diminished in the slightest by the fact that they are required to ponce around in spa-wear. Not one iota.

And the appearance of water polo teams in the Olympic pool, which had been the preserve of the race-swimmers suddenly made the exploits of last week’s stars – your Phelpses, your Lochtes, your Gunnars and your Macks – seem a bit shallow and pointless. Yes, Michael Phelps swims a mean butterfly. But see if he had to contend with a pissed-off Serb maintain a vice-like grip on his family jewels or experienced a stray Croatian elbow in the thorax, well, what kind of split times would he post then?

Also, the water polo lads also made their lane-swimming counterparts seem absurdly vain. None of them could be bothered with the shaved-chest look and weren’t that worried about carrying a few extra midriff pounds into their battle either. In fact, they need the bit of heft: it helps when you are trying to break free from your opponent’s under-water headlock.

For a lot of the time, the polo players aren’t so much swimming as simply not drowning. Short of horsing a few live sharks into the water, you couldn’t increase the degree of wild thrashing or white water or frantic sprinting this way and that. The aim of the game is pretty simple. One guy, a kind of pool-general, holds onto the ball, threading water while the rest of the them get on with the business of beating the living shit out each other under the water.

After the softening up period, the team is possession will mount a strategic attack, flinging the ball about with stunning accuracy while keeping themselves afloat (you have to continually remind yourself that these aren’t playing in the shallow end). It’s absolutely brilliant stuff. Little wonder that NBC chose to broadcast it live to their audience rather than the prestige football final between Germany and Brazil.

The game with which its shares an unexpected sister relationship is Gaelic football. Watching the Serbs and Croats pummel and punch their way through the quarters, it was impossible not to think of the phrases which define our championship summer.

The only way that watching this final could have been improved – short of being transported to a bar in downtown Split or Belgrade – was to hear it accompanied by an RTÉ GAA commentary, maybe the Brian Carthy-Tom Carr combination. “I think there might have been an incident off the ball”; “the ref is going to have a word”; “it was definitely high”; “the referee needs eyes in the back of his head here”; “there’s no place for that kind of thing in our game”; “this game is in danger of getting out of control”; “the Serbs are parking the boat”: all of these apply perfectly to water polo.

It’s a non-stop, mad game and it surely isn’t beyond Ireland to transmogrify a series of uncompromising centre-half backs or powerful midfielders into some kind of water polo unit. In fact, it’s not beyond the bounds that even now, given a few months in the National Aquatics Centre, the Meath All-Ireland team of ’87-’88 would make a decent stab at the game. It would take decades, of course, to catch up to Croatia and Serbia and even if you could, I’m not sure you’d want to. It is truly murderous stuff. Serbia won, by the way, 11-7. Safe to say the rivalry is finely poised.

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