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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

No Standing on Ceremony in Italy's Victory over U.S.

Water polo: They stay home, then march past tired Americans, 10-7.

July 21, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Most of the players from defending water polo champion Italy remained in the athletes' village Friday night to watch the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics on television. Among the athletes they saw march into the Centennial Olympic Stadium were the 13 U.S. players who would face the Italians 24 hours later.

The Americans said Saturday night that they would not have traded their experience for anything, even a victory over the Italians.

No U.S. players claimed that the more than two hours they spent marching and standing in the stadium was a reason for their listless play, but it was as good an excuse as any for a 10-7 loss at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center.

"Who knows whether it made a difference?" said two-meter man Chris Humbert, who, suffering from a shoulder injury, was held to one goal. "I do know that the Italians aren't enjoying their Olympic experience like we are.

"We've heard for four years we should figure this as more than a water polo tournament. With the Olympics in our country, there was no way we weren't going to march in the opening ceremonies."

The Italians, however, are under more pressure to win from fans at home who expect them to duplicate their victories from the 1992 Olympics, '94 World Championships and '95 European Championships.

Their coach, Ratko Rudic, doesn't expect them to win. He demands it. They listen to him because he has coached the last three gold medalists--Italy in '92 and Yugoslavia in '84 and '88. He also won a silver medal as a Yugoslavian player in 1980.

Rudic allowed his players to participate in the opening ceremonies but made it clear that he preferred they didn't. Only four marched. The others thought the fact they rested Friday night was a factor against the United States.

"At the end, we were more fresh," veteran Carlo Silipo said. "That was the difference."

There had to be some reason that the United States rallied from a three-goal deficit to tie at 4-4 at the end of two quarters and then collapsed. Italy scored four of the next five goals and was not really threatened in the last quarter.

Asked what he said in a brief, postgame meeting with the players, U.S. Coach Rich Corso said: "I told them, 'You couldn't have played much worse.' You've got to be honest."

He also told them: "Forget it. Let's move on."

The United States meets Greece tonight.

Corso said that he didn't believe the previous night's activities had any effect on his players. He thought the fact that they had almost 24 hours afterward to think about a game that didn't start until 10 p.m. (EDT) Saturday was more of a factor. He said they were nervous at the start.

That would explain Italy's 4-1 lead less than a minute into the second quarter. The United States revived itself with consecutive goals by Mike Evans, Chris Oeding and Wolf Wigo.

But with the Italian defense smothering Humbert, the United States couldn't convert on a series of six-on-five situations and lost its momentum. For the game, the Americans were only four for 11 with a man up.

Although the Italians have one of the world's best goalkeepers in Francesco Attolico, he does not intimidate the Americans. They scored 11 times in a one-goal victory over Italy in May at the U.S. Open in Nashville.

"We just weren't making the shots we usually make," Humbert said.

Meantime, the U.S. two-meter defense broke down. The Calcaterra brothers, Alessandro and Roberto, combined for four goals, three in the fourth quarter.

"Everybody has a bad day," Humbert said. "It's better to have ours now than on Day 6 when we're in the quarterfinals. Hopefully, we'll be in the quarterfinals."

There is a good chance of that. Four of the six teams in each group advance. The United States is expected to even its record tonight against the Greeks.

"For the United States, the first game doesn't mean anything," Rudic said. "In Seoul [in 1988], I lost to the United States, then won the Olympic Games. Of course, it is better to win than to lose, but this result means nothing."

If that's really true, why did he want his players to relax Friday night instead of marching in the opening ceremonies?

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