USA vs. Croatia Post-mortem

It was demoralizing nearly from the start and by the time the Croatians had scored five goals without answer there were no more references to historic wins over Hungary and Croatia in California earlier this summer. The Balkan powerhouse, coached by water polo sage and former US coach Ratko Rudic, dissected and exposed the Americans, winning the quarterfinal match 8-2. Croatia was superior in every way, as were Serbia and Hungary, tellingly, in the Americans’ two previous lackluster matches. The US, which entered the Olympics with such confidence and acclaim, will now play the Spanish for fifth place.

Both Monte Nitzkowski and Dante Dettamanti predicted in interviews on TWp a top five or six finish for the squad, precisely where the USA is slotted. But those reasonable predictions won’t satisfy those who had such high expectations for the squad. And the result is not good for USA Water Polo, which naturally has done nothing to dampen the entusiasm for the team. For an organization that (rightfully) wants to be judged on the results it produces, this outcome is a blow (and adds to the pressure placed on the USA women, who must win the gold medal today for their own reasons). For some the result was to be expected, but for many others a gold medal was the natural outcome for 2008’s silver medal darlings.

The Europeans view things differently.

As one told me, “Water polo is European,” implying it was in their blood or some such thing. Really? Shall we count all the Olympic medals the Romanians have collected? The Greeks? That would be zero for those respected powers, let alone France or Poland.

No, there’s nothing pre-ordained about European superiority. It is concentrated, naturally, in the cultures where they do the most work: the Balkans, Italy, Hungary. And they DO the most work, training, strategy, recruiting, talent evaluation. It only makes sense; these men get paid to do so. This is where my European friend is right. And by those measures the US men have been wildly successful, something even our continental friends admit (quietly). Regardless, the powerhouses shrug at the idea that the US could’ve won gold. The natural order of things has returned.

So yes, the US has gotten better in the past four years. All the training together, the impressive experience the team has gathered, the change in coaching: all these have produced the most technically skilled US team ever. Again, even the Europeans will admit this. These were not wasted efforts despite the crashing defeat in the quarter-finals.

But if the US got better, the European powers got even more so – and younger too.

Beijing was a glorious tournament for the US men, an historic moment in American water polo history. But an honest critique must acknowledge that a unique alignment of goalkeeping, defense, man-up scoring, luck, and a massive strategic blunder by the Serbs propelled that squad to the silver medal. No apology required – the US deserved every bit of that victory.

This year no one took the Americans for granted.

Coming up: what next?