The legend of Hungarian water polo began 90 years ago

As the only team sport, water polo appeared in the program at the 1900 Olympics. The cradle of the sport is Great Britain, the first rule book was created in Scotland in 1876, the first matches were held in reservoirs next to textile factories, and the first teams were made up of firefighters. The sport took root relatively quickly in Hungary as well, the first regular ball arrived in Hungary in 1897, the first match was held on August 30, 1899 in Siófok. The first Olympics were dominated by the British, ours took part in the Olympics for the first time in 1924, where the victory against the British (7:6) was a serious sensation, but then the quarter-final defeat against the Belgians (2:7) dashed the medal dreams. However, the team continued to grow stronger, becoming European champions in 1926 and a year later.

The management of the team was given to Béla Komjádi, who had three goals.

  • Winning the Olympics
  • maintaining hegemony,
  • and for this purpose, the creation of an indoor swimming pool.

In an indoor swimming pool, the players can complete the required amount of training, considered brutal at the time, even if the weather is bad outside. During Komjádi, the players swam 2 kilometers.

The Hungarians came to the 1928 Olympics as great contenders, but they were unexpectedly defeated in the final against the Germans, and the silver medal was then considered a minor failure. One of the reasons for the defeat was arrogance: even before the game, the players were talking about how big a margin they would win. The other reason is egoism: with a 2:0 lead, team play was pushed into the background, everyone wanted to become a hero by scoring the third goal, so even if there was a teammate in a better position, they didn’t pass him. The third reason is fatigue, they conceded three goals in extra time after 2:2.

And the fourth reason is quite unique: János Németh, who was already considered one of the best players, was not included in the traveling team.

The center, who won consecutive top goalscorer titles in Hungary, did not have the best relationship with the captain, and also started with a handicap due to his working-class background. Water polo was considered a middle-class sport, and since Németh grew up as a half-orphan with his siblings, he had to work early and had no chance to graduate. Olivér Halassy, ​​one of the leading men of the guard, believed that Németh, nicknamed only Jamesz by his peers, was at least as good a player as he was, yet he should stay at home, and this outraged him. It must be mentioned about Halassy that he is a champion of willpower, because he was eight years old when he tried to jump onto a moving tram, but his foot slipped down the stairs and the tram wheel took his foot off. His left leg had to be amputated above the ankle, but his physical disability did not prevent him from making it to the national team, and he also won championships in river swimming.

After the silver medal, Komjádi realized that without Németh there was no chance of winning the ’32 gold medal, so in 1929 he took him on a tour to Berlin. Here, Németh scored a goal that made even the German fans jump to their feet, and the match stopped for several minutes due to thunderous applause. During a Hungarian attack

Németh lay on his back and, after receiving a short ball, kicked it over his head into the goal. The ball hit the top bar, but from there it bounced right into the hands of the already outstanding Németh, who, seeing that the goalkeeper had moved towards one corner, bombed the other one with great force.

The well-known Hungarian actors who were on the spot rushed to the edge of the pool and asked about its name, because they had never seen such an attraction before. As revealed in Németh’s autobiographical book, after that he became unbreakable from the team, his teammates accepted him, his origin didn’t matter that much anymore, only his relationship with his teammate from Újpest, Halassy, ​​deteriorated.

The gold medal winning Hungarian water polo team (from left to right): Sándor Ivády, György Bródy, József Vértesy (Vrábel), János Németh, Márton Homonnai (Hlavacsek), Alajos Keserű, Olivér Halassy – Source: Wikimedia Commons

For the 1932 Olympics, Komjádi therefore set off for Los Angeles with the strongest team – they went by boat and train for weeks – and of course with the desire to fight back. Few people undertook the long journey, only five countries entered the Olympics. The performance of the national team was eagerly awaited at home as well, according to recollections, fans stood in long lines at the newsstand early in the morning, as the first great victory in the ball game was just achieved. In one of Komjádi’s second jobs, he also wrote a newspaper, and with great flair he made water polo edible, of course, in the conditions of the time.

At the Olympics, the rematch could take place in the very first match, on the sixth of August. Németh promised the captain four goals against the Germans. “Just shoot them,” replied the specialist, who could hardly hide his excitement before the matches.

He was under a lot of pressure, because he received a telegram from the association’s management from home before the start that the fate of universal Hungarian sport rests or falls on them.

“Go into the match as if you have to win, because losing can have huge consequences.”

Komjádi gave a vote of confidence to this team: Bródy – Ivády, Homonnai – Halassy – Vértesy, Németh, Alajos Keserü.

We didn’t have to wait long for the first goal, Vértesy scored, then Németh, with a breath-taking solution, overtook both the defending defender and the goalkeeper attacking him, and arced half under the water into the empty goal. Komjádi couldn’t calm down because his team had just led 2:0 at halftime four years before. Németh tried to convince himself that he still owed three goals. Komjádi just replied, just shoot them.

In the continuation, he had a cheeky sly goal, he sold a penalty that he won, and then he crowned his performance with a Swedish screw, when he kicked the ball into the net with his back to the goal. Then he shouted happily, “I have the four, uncle Komi”! When they were not on good terms, he scolded his master and did not call him like the others.

Vértesy cut into the sixth, and from there he ran only to beautify the Germans. (There are sources, articles and books that write 3 goals next to Németh’s name, but the person concerned claimed until the end that he scored four.) The final result was 6:2, and the manager of the Germans, Walter Binner, stated that the Hungarians played as before never seen them play.

“They were fast, sure of the ball, we were able to overcome their tricks, they are artists of the game. They have a certain sense of the game at the tip of their fingers that no one else has.”

The English judge, Emery, who also watched the match, similarly raved about the Hungarian team’s intelligence, calmness, and exceptional actions. He had never encountered such a combinative interplay in the pool before. There was no trace of the individualism of four years earlier.

The next day, Komjádi led the German-Brazilian match as a judge – at that time it was common in the sport – and after sending off a Brazilian, the rest of the team attacked him from the bench and the audience. They hit and kicked the Hungarian captain on the edge of the pool. After that, the Brazilians were eliminated, and the Hungarian team secured the gold medal with a 7:0 victory over the Americans. Halassy scored five times in the match. The national team amazed the world so much that the revolutionaries of the sport were immortalized in an oil painting.

The final against the Americans - Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images

The final against the Americans – Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images

Komjádi hid his illness as much as he could, and died on March 4, 1933. A stroke took him tragically young, shortly before his 41st birthday. A swimming pool was named after him.

What happened to the rest of the team?

Olivér Halassy won a gold medal for the second time in 1936 and is one of the country’s best-known athletes, a real crowd favorite. He was the most tragic member of the team, because on September 10th, 1946, he was taken out of his car and shot with the driver, when he left MTK for Újpest after a long meeting. In the next day’s newspaper they wrote about a robbery murder, On the other hand, Zoltán Bay claims in his book, Soviet soldiers opened fire on him because he did not hand over his car. According to witnesses, he must have been killed by uniformed men. Five thousand people went to his funeral, the parish priest compared him to the blind Milton, who dictated the influential work of his life, Paradise Lost. Today, a swimming pool in Újpest bears Halassy’s name.

János Németh also became champion at the 1936 Olympics, then he left the country in 1956, settled in Madrid, and died there in 1988. This is how Ferenc Karinthy remembered his former teammate, Németh:

No striker has ever scored as many goals as this ball artist, this juggler, he knew a hundred different ways to shake off the violence of the defenders and “feed” the goalkeepers who were lying in wait. The center, that is, the center forward, swims to the opponent’s goal right from the start, stays there with his back to the net, watching the field and waiting to receive the ball. And one of the defenders, the full-back, immediately stands next to him, or more precisely on top of him – because they trample, stomach, and grab each other without a break, even if the ball is moving in the other half of the field, they are fighting for the position. There are determined defenders who grow centimeter nails, train thick and hard, and in some hotter matches

The mountain and hydrographic map of Hungary is scratched on the striker’s back.

Others don’t dare to hold his hands under the water, to wrap their thighs around his waist, so that the poor center can’t even squeak, like in the castle. Against Németh James, however, such subterfuges were completely ineffective. If his right hand was caught, he shot, twisted, dropped with his left in the same way, or passed it from a doppler into the goal, i.e. by doubling, this is the name of the poke, when the center only reaches into the sharp ball with his backhand to change its direction and whistle past the goalkeeper who is in position into the net. If his left hand was also seized, he stuck his leg out of the water and kicked him in the same way, if his leg was also locked, with his head, shoulder, he could not be disarmed. Sometimes only one knee or one palm of the whole person stuck out of the water, the ball bounced there and then into the goal.”

The always cool-headed goalkeeper of the team, György Bródy, was also unstoppable from the ’36 Olympic team. He decided not to return home in 1948, emigrated to Johannesburg, became a businessman, and died in South Africa in 1967 of a heart attack during a football match.

Márton Homonnai is also a two-time Olympic champion. Returning home from the front, he sided with the Arrows in the war, was the deputy commander-in-chief of the capital, and was later convicted in absentia. He went to Argentina via Germany and started a new life, where he died. His daughter, Kató Szőke, won the 100-meter freestyle at the Olympics in 1952 and was also a member of the winning 4×100 relay.

Sándor Ivády obtained a law degree, and between 1937 and 1939 he became the captain of the national team. (Ivády was already referred to as the minister’s son in 1932, since his father, Béla Ivédy, was Minister of Agriculture until February 1932.) After the war, he was interned first in Kistarcsá and then in Recsk because of his origin, he emigrated in 1956, settled in Vienna, at the age of 95, He died in 1998, a few days before Christmas.

Vértesy participated in the 1936 Olympics as a coach and prepared Ferenc Csik for the 100-meter freestyle, which he won. Later he also coached in water polo.

Alajos Keserü also became a coach, and his brother Ferenc became the captain after Komjádi, but during the title defense in 1936, László Beleznai led the team instead of him.

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