In the meet's final game on Saturday afternoon, Estiarte fired in three goals to help Spain tie the U.S. 5-5. Thus the Americans, voted co-favorites with the U.S.S.R. by coaches before the meet, finished fourth. And so continued the U.S.'s spotty tradition in the sport: little success until a surprise bronze medal at the 1972 Olympics; failure to qualify for the 1976 Games; a team that had a good shot at the 1980 Olympic gold; a dismal sixth-place finish in the 1982 World Championships.
It should be noted that American water-polo players work at a disadvantage in international competition. Older than athletes in most amateur sports (average age: 25), they have to hold real jobs while they train—no government subsidies here—and they must train as a unit. Since last fall, Nitzkowski and his assistants have spent two nights a week coaching a group of players in Southern California and two other nights coaching a bunch in Northern California. Every weekend, one group arrives at the other's workout site for a plenary session. "It's been crazy," says Nitzkowski.
Still, with an intense schedule of meets and training camps set up for next year, including week-long get-togethers with both the Italian and West German teams, Nitzkowski thinks the U.S. will be ready for the 1984 Olympics. "That's the only competition that really matters," he says. "Besides, we didn't have a good 1971 before we won that bronze medal."
Part of the difficulty in defeating the Soviets for a gold medal next summer will be physically outplaying a team that rarely errs and has good players two deep. But the real key may be to break through a psychological barrier. "The Russians are the Muhammad Ali of water polo," says Italian Coach Gianni Lonzi. "Unfortunately, you are a little afraid of them."
When Firoiu was asked if the best team had won the tournament, he didn't even hesitate. "Sicher," he said. Then he answered in English, "Absolutely."