«Silver is always the bitterest medal, but the one in Barcelona was our final. “We lost a unique opportunity that will never be repeated.” Some time after falling after three overtimes against Italy, in the presence of 18,000 Spanish fans who packed the stands of the Picornell swimming pools, Manel Estiarte, the Maradona of water polo, was still lamenting before a senior executive of the Organizing Committee of the 1992 Games.
Seeing those hustlers crying their eyes out made everyone’s hair go crazy. Sterling silver was like the end of the world. Nobody imagined then that four years later, at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center in Atlanta, the best historical generation of Spanish water polo was going to win the Olympic gold after beating Croatia in the final (7-5). Joan Jané was already on the bench, very different in his methods from the Balkan ogre Dragan Matutinovic.
«That defeat by Barcelona against Italy on the last day of the Games toughened us up and served as a lesson for Atlanta. We understood that to play finals you have to pause and put the tension where it belongs. Too much excitement doesn’t get you anywhere,” concluded Miki Oca, current women’s coach.
The man from Madrid, precisely, did not remove the stigma of loser from 92 until 96. He had the last option for the tie in an action that made everyone hold their breath, after Gandolfi’s arm had made it 9-8 for the ‘azzurri’. «It was a shot that I had very internalized, with a turn of the wrist to deceive the goalkeeper. When the ball came to me, I was sure it would be a goal. But the ball hit the crossbar and fell gently into the water.
Until that final, Spain advanced with solvency. 12-6 against Holland, 11-6 against Greece, 8-5 against powerful Hungary in an exhibition by goalkeeper Jesús Rollán, now sadly missing, 9-9 against Italy and 12-10 against Cuba to finish group leaders. In the semifinals, the United States, a very tough and very physical group. The locals won 6-4 and reached the final with magnificent feelings. A date in which they always had to swim against the current (1-4 after the second quarter and 3-6 after the third chapter of an underwater battle), except when Estiarte, with a penalty, gave them the lead in extra time. But the tension, the nerves, the excess of adrenaline and the excessive desire to “swallow the pizza eaters” turned against Spain.
On the way to the podium, the group was divided between the automatons and the disconsolate, those who had an empty, lost look, and those who found no consolation. “The world does not end here,” shouted Matutinovic, the paramilitary technician whom the Federation turned to to replace the friendly Catalan Toni Esteller in search of Olympic gold, and who failed in the final against his compatriot Ratko Rudic.
The Croatian ‘sergeant’
“It was a difficult, long, hard, horrible stage… perhaps necessary, surely necessary, but hell.” This is how Estiarte, captain of that team, remembers the three years that the ‘iron sergeant’ led them. His words are recorded in the TV3 documentary ‘Aigua, infern y cel’ along with those of other former colleagues such as Salvador Gómez ‘Chava’, who suffered a military regime first hand.
Everyone remembers the very tough concentrations at the Aynos Park Andorra complex. Every day, 10 kilometers of hill running, 12,000 meters in the pool, demanding sessions in the gym and even 90-minute soccer games on a regulation field. “Every time we went up to Andorra, the nails on the big toe of each foot fell off,” confesses ‘Chava’. “Whoever did not obey his orders was exposed to punishment.” “He believed that, with this way of working, those who were strong endured and those who were not, separated from the group,” says Oca. “It was brutal psychological training,” says Jordi Sans. “Since you couldn’t give a damn to the coach, you went to the wall, shouted and you were happy,” says Marc Antoni González. «I didn’t even let you go to the doctor; Jesús Rollán had to escape to visit the dentist,” adds Gómez.
Pedro García, who became popular years later with coaching programs on television, told a brutal anecdote in that documentary. “I took some small cubes of ham from the coaching staff’s table and it left us all without food.” The players had to endure insults, humiliation and disrespect in Andorra, the ‘paradise of the Pyrenees’ that everyone wants to forget. “No one visits a prison again and that is my memory of Andorra,” Gómez concluded. Matutinovic justifies everything because “it was a fairly undisciplined group and everything was done based on the Olympic final. You had to work and know how to suffer. That’s why we did things that a water polo player usually doesn’t do.”
To the happiness of everyone, in 1993 Matutinovic was fired. ‘Toto’ García confesses that he almost hit him when he punished him without being able to leave the room in Sheffield. In that European Championship, the Croatian coach was suspended for 12 games for attacking a referee. With Matutinovic, three silver and one bronze in three years. With Jané, an Olympic crown and two World Cups, in Perth’98 and Fukuoka’01.