LONDON (Reuters) - Serbia upset defending champions Hungary in a thrilling early water polo group match on Sunday, powering to a 14-10 victory and signaling to the Hungarians that they have a huge battle on their hands to win a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
In a match fought out with the intensity of a final, the two favorites matched each other goal-for-goal in the first half, before European champions Serbia took command with a prolific third-quarter performance.
Hungary’s loss ended the water polo superpower’s unbeaten run of 17 games at the Olympics. They last lost a match 12 years ago in the group stages in Sydney.
Hungary’s old guard, four of whom are targeting a fourth gold, were unrattled by their first taste of Olympic defeat on the opening day of the water polo contest.
“We just want to win the next game and (we) don’t think about history and records because if we think about that we can’t concentrate on the next match,” 36-year-old Tamas Kasas, who is competing in his fifth Games, told reporters after the match.
Hungarian goal keeper Zoltan Szecsi blamed a lack of concentration for the setback.
“Everybody can play well if we let them,” he said.
The high-scoring match thrilled a stadium packed with 5,000 fans, with each Hungarian goal prompting roars and chanting from a crowd awash with Hungarian flags.
But the crowd’s support was not enough to help Hungary against a relentless Serbian attack which saw Andrija Prlainovic, 25, blast five goals past the Hungarian defense.
The match was the first in Group B, which features the top four-placed nations from the Beijing Games.
Serbia’s Filip Filipovic said the team would now focus on recovering ahead of what he believes will be tough matches against Montenegro and the United States.
“We are really, really tired. In the second half of the game, we saw another face of Hungary, we saw the Olympic winners, it was very, very tough. We are just happy to win,” he said.
Britain, competing in water polo at the Olympics for the first time since 1956 as a result of their host nation status, were crushed by Romania on Sunday 13-4.
The British team, which are also in Group B, had pinned their hopes for a win on Romania, seeing the match as their least difficult before they take on Hungary, the United States and Serbia.
Captain Craig Figes said the team, roused by a partisan crowd, were not daunted.
”We love the challenge,“ Figes said. ”We’re playing the best teams in the world.
“We’ll put that one behind us, we’ll build on the positive performance and we’ll work on trying to put the finishing touches on it and then we’ll come back and we’ll give it 100 percent,” Figes said.
The Serbia-Hungary clash was full of the aggression and physicality for which the sport has been renowned since the “blood in the water” match between Hungary and the Soviet Union at the 1956 Games.
The famous match saw Hungary overcome the Soviet Union in a showdown laden with emotion and meaning, as the Hungarians took the battle against their Soviet masters, who days before had quelled a revolution on the streets of Budapest, to the water polo pool.
“It’s tough. It’s not ballet,” Croatia’s Miho Boskovic told reporters earlier in the day, clutching a bag of ice to his elbow after scoring three goals in Croatia’s opener against Greece.
Wrestling and grabbing in water polo means players often disappear beneath the water as they vie for position, leaving spectators to wonder about the mess of foam and flailing limbs before the bodies emerge.
Group A favorites Croatia stormed back in the final quarter to secure an 8-6 win over Greece, powering to victory after a shaky start, while Spain outclassed Kazakhstan, winning 14-6 and, Italy overcame Australia 8-5.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall