SPORTS

Dominant for past 12 years, Hungary's men's water polo team struggling at London Olympics

07/31/2012 12:30 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - For 12 years, the Hungarian men's water polo team couldn't lose at the Olympics, winning three straight gold medals and running up a 17-game unbeaten streak. Now, they can't seem to win.

Hungary lost to Montenegro 11-10 on Tuesday, two days after dropping its opener at the London Olympics to Serbia 14-10. So after all that success in recent years, what's happened to the Hungarians this summer?

Well, you could chalk it up to the competition.

In a punishingly deep field in London, Hungary has had the misfortune of facing two of the top medal contenders in its first two matches.

Serbia is coming off a stellar few years topped by the European Championship this winter and is the favourite for gold in London, while Montenegro only fell a goal short against the Serbs in the 2012 European Championship title game.

"I don't want to think about a crisis," said star Tamas Kasas. "We lost against two of the best teams. We are disappointed, but we have many matches to come so we have to stay positive."

It does get easier for Hungary in the days to come, with Romania and Britain — neither water polo powers — up next before closing out the preliminary stage against the team it beat in the 2008 Beijing final, the United States.

Montenegro's Drasko Brguljan offered up another idea: The Hungarians are getting old.

"It's a very good team, exactly the same as it was before, but now they have a few years on them," Brguljan said with a smile before expressing a common sentiment among Hungary's rivals: "I think three golds is enough."

But Brguljan was indeed onto something. Water polo is a physically grueling sport, and all those hours in the pool take a toll.

The veteran core of the Hungarian team — 36-year-olds Tamas Kasas and Peter Biros and 34-year-olds Zoltan Szesci and Gergely Kiss — have all played on those three gold medal winning teams over the past 12 years, and are now quickly approaching retirement.

Kasas, for one, already retired from the national team once, leaving the squad after its Beijing triumph and only returning this winter for the European Championship and a shot at another Olympic gold.

"Of course we are older, everybody gets older with time, and the other teams get motivated and everybody wants to win the Olympics," Kasas said. "We won the last three Olympics, so everybody wants to beat us. It's 1,000 times more difficult now in London than it was in Beijing or Athens, so we have to be 1,000 times better than then, so it is very difficult."

The traditional power in men's water polo, Hungary has won a record nine Olympic golds, and has a shot at an unprecedented fourth consecutive title this year.

Even with two losses on the books so far in London, coach Denes Kemeny, who has steered Hungary to its last three Olympic titles, isn't panicking.

Ever confident, he said that all it will take for Hungary's past glittering form to return — and the wins that come with it — are a few tweaks.

"Today we had a very balanced play, only small things are missing to get the right picture," he said. "It's probably the level of concentration. It's disturbing, I think we could have won this easily."

___

Ryan Lucas can be reached on twitter at www.twitter.com/relucasz

MORE:cpSports