The LEN Water Polo Champions League Final Six begins this week with a full slate of live streaming coverage ramping up on Thursday. The annual event takes place this year in waterpolo-nuts Budapest, but it’s held in some fan-frenzied European city just about every year. Two Hungarian teams have made it to the Final Six ensuring huge, boisterous and very knowledgeable crowds. The entire mini-tournament is available in the US on FloSwimming.
As the tournament has grown over the past decade LEN has been consciously standardizing and improving the quality of its broadcasts. And viewership has been good, with one particular surprise according to the organization’s leadership: big live-streaming numbers from the USA, particularly when there is a paywall. Of course most European fans can catch the F6 on one of their national TV channels. But as a share of the overall streaming viewership, American fans have produced higher numbers than expected. And LEN has noticed.
Viewers who may struggle to read Hungarian shouldn’t have to worry about it much during FloSwimming’s stream, unless you enjoy translating the copious advertising (another LEN emphasis) floating in the pool and plastered around the perimeter. The chyron will likely be in English even if the commentary is not. But better a knowledgable Hungarian announcer, or none at all, than an unfortunate Canadian assigned by the IOC to call a sport he saw for the first time nine days ago. No, newcomers to this sport or tournament are going to see the game at its absolute best: Noisy and educated crowds, high-class TV production, the highest quality water polo on the planet played by its best athletes (widely considered better than the Olympics).
Some might think that nationalist passions would be subdued by the professional nature of the clubs, which welcome athletes from around the world. But take a glance at these rosters. Of course there are exceptions, but in general Serbians play for Serbian clubs, Italians for Italian ones, and so on. The teams are national by proxy if not by designation, and emotions run high accordingly. Witness the 2013 final – video above – in which Red Star of Serbia defeated rivals Jug Dubrovnik of Croatia by one goal in the final, played in Belgrade. Thousands of mainly Serbian fans were there to inspire their team in an atmosphere unthinkable in US water polo circles.
And if you don’t know why passions would rise for a water polo match between clubs from the two nations, take a few moments to brush up on the Croatian War of Independence. Water polo is hardly war. But memories are long in the Balkans. These nation’s fans celebrate victory with relish, and take defeat hard.
Armed conflict hasn’t been quite so recent among Greece, Hungary, and Italy. But the fans of clubs from those nations hardly lack for water polo passion. Host-city Budapest may well be the figurative epicenter of the sport. Hungary has won nine men’s Olympic gold medals, the most by any country. But it was 2004 when one of its clubs, Domino BHSE, last won the Champions League. This year the country proudly has two clubs in the Final Six. Szolnoki VSK, a 60-minute train ride from Budapest, can be counted among the tournament favorites. Its defense is anchored by legendary goalie Viktor Nagy, one of several Olympians including Gábor Kis, Denes Varga, and Serbian Andrija Prlainovic.
ZF Eger, two hours from Hungary’s capital, is not considered to be as big threat to win the championship. Locals are hoping for an opening-round upset of Brescia, which would lead to an Eger vs. Szolnoki semi-final – and would guarantee a Hungarian team in the final. Eger isn’t as high powered as their rivals from the South, but is home one of this year’s only American connections. Balazs Erdelyi stars for the club and is one of the best players in varsity water polo history. Winner of the 2013 Cutino Award for the country’s best collegiate player, he nearly led the University of Pacific to a shocking NCAA Championship in 2013 over USC.
That year USC staged one of the great comebacks in NCAA history to win the title in double overtime, partially thanks to a young Greek named Kostas Genidounias, who scored twice in the match. One year later he too won a Cutino Award and was named to the Pac-12 All-century team in 2015. He’s returned to Greece to offer his skills both to his country’s Olympic team and to Olympiacos of Pireaus located near Athens. A year ago the club nearly upset Croatia’s Jug in the Champions League final and featured US Olympian Jesse Smith (watch for #8 in the blue caps).
Jug Dubrovnik return as defending champions. But not since 2008 has a team repeated, and Jug faces improved opposition this year. The Croatians finished third in their preliminary group behind improved Eger and Pro Recco. The 2013 version of the Croatian side featured the recently retired American, Tony Azevedo, widely acknowledged to be the best water polo player in US history (cap #6 in the video).
Formed in 1973, AN Brescia is a relative youngster among European clubs and boasts one of the coolest badges too. It’s also a very high-quality squad. This is the team’s second placement in the F6 in the last three years, and they defeated Serie A1-leading Pro Recco earlier this month, the first league loss for Recco in nearly 30 months. Brescia sits opposite their rivals in the Final Six bracket setting up the tantalizing prospect of an all-Italian title match.
If Brescia is very good then Pro Recco is legendarily so. La squadra più titolata al mondo, Recco own eight Champions League trophies among their gaudy collection of awards: 8 Euroleagues, 6 European Supercups, 1 Adriatic Cup, 31 Italian Leagues, 12 Italian Cups. Their roster seems always to include the crème de la crème of the globe’s superstars, and it’s no different in 2017. Goalie Stefano Tempesti will end his career as one of the top goalies of all time. The team is littered with other Italian standouts: Pietro Figlioli has one of the more interesting stories. Brazilian-born, a former Australia international, he shifted allegiance to Italy in 2009 causing controversy Down Under. He became one of the highest paid players in the world at the time and still possesses one of the most fearsome shots in the world, over 6o mph on the radar. The non-Italians are stellar too. Filip Filipovic of Serbia is the best player in the world, and 26-year-old Croatian Sandro Sukno is poised to reach that level.
If you’re new to the sport you could do a lot worse than sampling it at its most elevated. This is the tournament to watch. It begins on Thursday with a rematch of last year’s final, Olmpiacos vs. Jug, followed by local faves Eger vs. Brescia. The finals take place on Saturday beginning at 3:15 PM CEST – 6:15 AM in Los Angeles, 9:15 in New York.
Final Six, Budapest, Duna Aréna
Thursday 25th May – semi-final play-ins
Olympiakos – Jug Dubrovnik, 19:00
ZF-Eger – AN Brescia, 20:30
Friday 26th May – Semi-finals
5th-place play-off, 17:30
Olympiakos/Jug Dubrovnik – Pro Recco, 19:00
ZF-Eger/AN Brescia – Szolnoki Dózsa-Közgép, 20:30
Saturday 27th May
Bronze-medal match, 15:15
Men’s Champions League
Final Group A standings:
1. Szolnok 28
2. Olympiakos 22
3. Brescia 17
4. OSC 12
5. Spandau 7
6. Nice 0
Final Group B standings:
1. Recco 30 points
2. Eger 18
3. Dubrovnik 17
4. Barceloneta 14
5. Partizan 4
6. Hannover 3