A rarity for this American abroad: LEN Champions League water polo in Barcelona
It was like stepping out of a dream, even though water polo is the star.
A full house in a breathtaking aquatic installation. players whose Marco Bijac and Filip Filipovic focused towards Daniel Lopezand Philippe Perron. Whimsical lighting effects and a booming announcer at every lens. Television cameras stream the content into the ether on Eurovision.
It’s the game of the LEN Champions League, it happens every week across Europe, and it provided unexpected enjoyment on a brief trip to Spain.
It was professional water polo – something barely imagined in the United States – a contest between Club Natació Atlètic-Barceloneta and Olympiacos at the CNAB Plaça del Mar facility on the Balearic Sea. And even though the final score of 9-5 was in favor of host Zodiacs, in my opinion everyone won on a brilliant night on the Barcelona coast.
Having watched American collegiate water polo almost exclusively, the idea of live professional play is totally alien to me. I’ve covered national team competitions in Europe and South America, but there’s nothing quite like sitting in the stands playing in the Champions League. Professionals do NOT play on the state side and have not been seen since the FINA World League held a women’s competition in La Jolla, CA in 2010 and a men’s tournament in Long Beach, CA , in 2004.
It was a long time ago. FINA was scheduled to hold a men’s and women’s Intercontinental Cup tournament in Indianapolis in April 2020, but it was scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, there are no plans for FINA competition – which includes national team players who are also professionals – in America anytime soon.
[Indianapolis To Host 2020 FINA Men’s & Women’s Intercontinental Water Polo Tournament]
For this American, it’s exciting to see a polo of such caliber played and raises the question of what it will take for the United States to jump on this bandwagon.
First, to action. Seeing so many familiar faces was a bit shocking; having been informed of the match a few hours before, I was not prepared for what was to follow. Filipovic is the greatest player of this generation with two Olympic gold medals, two bronze medals and two world championships with Serbia as well as three Champions League titles with Pro Recco. Watching the now 34-year-old striker in the water is a huge comparable thrill to behold james lebron play for the Lakers.
Add to that Bijac, a silver medalist with Croatia at the Rio Games, and also a Champions League Cup winner last year with Pro Recco, and the members of Greece’s silver medal at the Games of Tokyo 2020, including the Olympic captain Ioannis Fountoulis, Konstantinos Genidouniasstill USC’s all-time leading scorer, and Thodoris Vlachoshead coach of the Greek national team since 2014, and it was clear that Olympiacos is full of talent.
But the host Zodiacs were more than up to the task, even with Spain national team goalkeeper Lopez sitting in favor of the 19-year-old phenom. Unai Aguirre. They were led in the water by Peronne, a Brazilian who played for Spain at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and then moved to his native country for the Rio Games.
The CNAB head coach was none other than Elvis Fatovic, a former Croatian national team player and assistant coach who recently returned to the continent after two Olympics with the Australian men. From “Down Under”, Fatovic brought Luc Pavillarda young southpaw who watched Pacific and narrowly missed the Sharks roster for the Tokyo Games.
[On The Record with Elvis Fatovic, Head Coach for Australian National Men’s Water Polo Team]
The CNAB entered the board from the first minute and a half, when Alvaro Granados ahead of Bijac. When Marc Larumbe scored on a jump a minute later, the home side had a two-goal advantage early on and were never directed. Olympiacos got a power-play score from Genidounias with a minute to go, but staying within two points in the second half was as close as the visitors got.
A two-goal Zodiac lead at halftime doubled in the third as Pavillard scored early and Péronne late, so when the teams traded goals in the fourth period the result was a 9-5 victory for the local team. Larumbe had two scores for CNAB; the marvelous Filipovic scored two for Olympiacos, including a revealing outburst which he casually threw to the armed side past his defender who tricked the brilliant Aguirre.
Afterwards, the CNAB players posed for photos with their fans, while Fatovic, whose Spanish has yet to reach the fast conversational pace of the locals, settled into a lounge to mingle with the supporters and to club officials.
The accessibility of the home team was both charming and impressive – and is also a hallmark of our college polo scene. But not for the American pros; the Spaniard’s familiarity underlined how deeply rooted the sport is in this polo-mad city. It’s something that might give American fans pause as they ponder how best to grow their beloved sport in one of the biggest entertainment markets in the world.