BarcelonaFor many years half of the protagonists of this story could not look at the images of the final. It hurt them too much. It was watching a second of that game and feeling a stab in the heart. The other protagonists, on the other hand, have seen it time and time again. Sport is a game of extremes, in which a few centimeters separate glory from pain. A few centimeters, or a few seconds, can raise certain people to heaven and sink others to hell. This, however, is also a story of redemption.
Along with the famous water battle between the Hungarians and the Soviets in 1956, just after the Soviet tanks entered Budapest, the Barcelona Olympic Games final is one of the most legendary matches in men’s water polo. Spain, who had never won gold, were playing at home and had a golden generation. But if anyone is a specialist in spoiling the party and becoming giants when the scene is adverse, it is Italian sport. And in the second extension of the final, now 30 years ago, the settebello, as they are known at home, won the gold by winning in the third overtime (8-9). Ho van fer davant la família reial espanyola, els familiars dels jugadors locals i una afició que donava per fet que l’or acabaria al coll d’un equip ple de catalans. It was the closing day of the Games. Thousands of people forgot the final hours later as a bunch of athletes climbed the stage to dance with Los Manolos and Cobi said goodbye by leaving in a paper boat. But for the players of the Spanish national team it was impossible to erase the memory. “To this day I still haven’t seen the whole final. For four years it took a lot to think about that match”, admits Dani Ballart, one of the youngsters at the time. “Then we felt it was a failure, we didn’t give it the value that a silver medal deserves”, adds Sergi Pedrerol. That golden generation of state water polo learned to value silver once they freed themselves of all fears four years later, winning the gold medal in Atlanta. That gold changed the perception of the Piscines Picornell silver. It seemed that somehow the suffering had been worth it. “And look what we suffered”, defends Pedrerol.
A movie story
The story of that final and that team lends itself to books and films. Go out in the excellent book Eternal Jesus Rollan (Córner), by journalists Francisco Ávila and Alberto Martínez, focused on the life of the team’s goalkeeper, who years later would take his own life affected by depression and drug addiction. “We had to live through a hard time. If losing the final was a blow, it was equally hard to get there, because of the training, hard both physically and psychologically”, admits Pedrerol. In an attempt to win gold, the Federation signed Croatian coach Dragan Matutinovic, who pushed the players to the limit with training sessions that looked like torture. Matutinovic admitted that his idea was to “bend the will of the players” to make them an army at his command. A team whose base was Catalan, since Catalan water polo has always been the best, but where a golden generation of Madrid players had arrived who initially did not get on well with the Catalans. Then the team learned to suffer together, and in 1996 they managed to win the gold and get revenge on a Matutinovic who had left after the 1992 final. The training of the Balkan coach was so hard that now will premiere a film about those days. “42 seconds“, directed by Dani de la Órden with actors such as Jaime Lorente, Álvaro Cervantes, Alex Maruny and Pep Ambròs. The film focuses on the rivalry between the best Catalan player, Manel Estiarte, and the best player from Madrid, Pedro García Aguado. And how the whole team suffers from Matutinovic’s methods. “However, his methods allowed us to lose respect against opponents like Hungary. It helped us to be able to win in the future,” always defends Ballart.
Catalan water polo had won its first European titles thanks to CN Barcelona and CN Catalunya. But the Olympic cherry was missing. The players’ preparation was very demanding, but it seemed to work until the final arrived. That August 9, 1992, however, all the players ended up crying when Miki Oca’s last shot hit the post. Spain had not defended well the previous attack by an Italy that had dominated the whole match, but had not scored. In fact, Spain raised a game that ended up losing 1-4. And the final was decided in extra time, where the game was still very even. In the second overtime, a goal from Estiarte looked set to give Spain the title, but buoyant Massimiliano Ferretti forced a third overtime with 20 seconds remaining. And here Italy claimed the glory. “In that overtime the referees didn’t whistle anything anymore. They didn’t want to have anything to do in a game that was so tense, so physical. With a few seconds to go we had a counter and their defense was broken, so I passed the ball to Ferretti, who scored the goal,” remembers Sicilian Sandro Campagna, one of the Italians’ best players. “It was a very tough match and they opened Estiarte’s eyebrow. It affected us, as well as not knowing how to defend his last attack. Matutinovic asked us to defend by pressing and it was a mistake,” says García Aguado. “We weren’t favorites. Not only because of playing at home, but also because of the players Spain had, one of whom was Manel Estiarte, who for many years proved to be the best in the Italian league. Winning that game made us eternal. If they remember us, at home, it’s because of that final,” added Campagna.
Losing the final became the fuel for those players in the following years. A wound that hurt so much that they didn’t stop until they won the gold in 1996, already with Joan Jané on the bench. To do this, they made sacrifices. García Aguado, who later became famous as a television presenter, admits that he also fell into the trap of drugs, like Jesús Rollán. Others admit that they were so obsessed with winning that they momentarily forgot about some of their loved ones. That final which served to close the Barcelona Games ended up becoming a great play about fears, doubts and what everyone is willing to do to win. A drama with a happy ending for some, but a sad ending for others. As usually happens in life.