The “Blood in the Pool” match may be considered the most violent game in water polo history, but perhaps not the most emotional one. If you ask fans to pick their favourite match, many would probably go for the final of the Olympic tournament at Barcelona 1992. Not by accident Spanish poloist Manel Estiarte, who participated in six different edition of the Olympics, has dedicated an entire chapter of his book “Todos mis hermanos” (“All my brothers”) to this game. Indeed, he labelled it el partido perfecto, “the perfect match”. He was one of the unquestionable protagonists of the encounter.
The Barcelona Games ended on 9 August 1992 and the water polo tournament’s final was meant to be a perfect epilogue. The open-air swimming pool named after Bernart Picornell hosted a balanced clash between Spain and Italy, the two most prominent national teams at the time.
It could not be an ordinary match for Estiarte (pictured below) as well as for six other teammates of him. All Catalonia-born, they were about the play in the presence of King Juan Carlos and Prince Felipe, their fathers and mothers, wives and girlfriends. They would battle for the Olympic gold medal in front of their people. It was a one-time opportunity.
Yugoslavia, gold medal holders, missed the tournament due to the umpteenth civil war which broke in the Balkans. They were somehow present, though, as Spain were coached by Dragan Matutinović and Italy by Ratko Rudić, who was seeking his third consecutive Olympic gold medal as a manager.
The 18,000 fans who filled the stands of the swimming pool expected hosting nation to win, as they had lost to the Yugoslavs in the World and European Championships finals the year before. They did not know they were about to watch the most extraordinary water polo match.
As Estiarte recalls in his book, the Spaniards meticulously prepared themselves for this match. They had inhuman training sessions, as they used to run kilometres along mountain paths or to swim wearing t-shirts. They felt much tension and, according to Estiarte, it was impossible to measure it, to understand whether they had previously been more or less under pressure.
It briskly appeared that tension played a dirty trick on them. Italy scored courtesy of centre-forward Massimiliano Ferretti, who lost his marker and put the ball between the arms of goalkeeper Jesús Rollán.
The second period began with the Settebello adding a second, as Paolo Caldarella found a fissure in the net. Estiarte took advantage of a man uo situation to reduce the gap, but it was just an illusion. Alessandro Campagna (pictured below) netted with a long-range shot and subsequently Ferretti struck again with a magnificent chip shot. Meanwhile, the zonal marking adopted by Rudić perfectly worked.
At half time, with Italy leading 4-2 as hole-set Salvador “Chava” Gómez scored, the Spanish Olympic dream was becoming a nightmare. But water polo is not like football. A three-goal deficit can be easily neutralised, if not tipped the other way.
Pedro García drilled in with a dazzling shot, but Italy were soon back to a substantial advantage as Campagna converted a penalty and Caldarella scored his personal brace. Home fans and, according to Italian players, referees Eugenio Martínez and Alfred van Dorp pushed Spain to reduce the gap again and goalie Francesco Attolico failed to shun two more goals by Pedro García.
It was now up to Italy to beware of a possible comeback by their opponents. Ferretti netted in numerical superiority, but Spain were just dieharder. Estiarte scored having brilliantly feinted and Miguel “Miki” Oca finally levelled as he caught Attolico off guard.
The rules provided for two three-minute extra time periods. The match developed into a nervous fight and Fiorillo was sent off for he punched Estiarte, forced to play with a wounded eyebrow. It was him, however, to have the opportunity to make history 42 seconds before the final whistle. Spain were awarded a penalty shot and Estiarte took it, despite he had already missed one throughout the game.
“I shot poorly, but I took the goalie aback”, Estiarte wrote. Spain were now leading 8-7 with 42 seconds still to be played. The Spain skipper himself recalled the key moment of the game. Matutinović called for pressing defence, a tactic Estiarte defined unappropriate in his book due to the circumstances. He reluctantly ordered his teammates to adopt the strategy and just 20 seconds later Ferretti shifted into the net a pass by Alessandro Bovo.
Three more periods were played and tension peaked not only among players, but also between the coaches. The sixth extra time was about to finish when Marco D’Altrui fed Ferretti on the two-metre line. The hole-set was fouled and caught glimp of teammate Ferdinando Gandolfi (pictured left) who was unmarked. Rollán desperately came off, but Genoa-born poloist flashed the ball under his arms, justs in the bottom corner. 32 seconds were separating Italy from their third Olympic gold medal.
Spain had their last chance. The dying seconds of the match gave the impression of being in front of six concurrent Graeco-Roman wrestling matches. Four seconds from the end, Estiarte was fouled and delivered the ball to Oca who shot immediately. The ball hit the crossbar and flapped the water not beyond the goal line.
After a 46-minute epic battle, Italy could celebrate their third Olympic triumph. Rudić laughed up his sleeve, as he became the first coach to win three Olympic gold medals in a row.
On his part, Estiarte used his hands to hide his sad face. The picture was published on Mundo Deportivo the day after and epitomised the shattered golden dreams of Spain.
Four years later, the Spaniards successfully broke the spell in Atlanta. Estiarte finally crowned his ultimate dream, but there will always be the regret for the final match at Barcelona 1992.
It should have been a triumph for an entire nation. Instead, Italy made the king cry.
Barcelona, piscina Bernart Picornell
9 August 1992
SPAIN 8-9 ITALY
(0-1, 2-3, 3-2, 2-1; 0-0, 1-1, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0, 0-1)
SPAIN: Jesús Rollán, Manel Estiarte 3, Daniel Ballart, Jordi Sans, Salvador Gómez 1, Miguel Oca 1, Pedro García 3; Sergi Pedrerol, Marco Antonio González, Rubén Michavila, Josep Picó, Ricardo Sánchez, Manuel Silvestre. Manager: Dragan Matutinović.
ITALY: Francesco Attolico, Alessandro Bovo, Alessandro Campagna 2, Mario Fiorillo, Francesco Porzio, Massimiliano Ferretti 4, Carlo Silipo; Marco D’Altrui, Giuseppe Porzio, Paolo Caldarella 2, Amedeo Pomilio, Ferdinando Gandolfi 1, Gianni Averaimo. Manager: Ratko Rudić.
REFEREES: Alfred van Dorp (Netherlands) and Eugenio Martínez (Cuba).