And then there is Japan.
The host country is zigging while the rest of the world is zagging, playing an aggressive, pressing defense and going without a massive center in the middle. Japan swims and swims and swims, more than any other team in the field, hoping to generate breakout opportunities while wearing down its opponent.
The reason is simple.
“This is the only way,” Japan coach Yoji Omoto said through a translator.
Omoto, who began his second stint as Japan‘s head coach in 2012, is working with a smaller group of potential players in the country in two different ways. He doesn’t have access to those hulking behemoths that traditional water polo powers have, and there isn’t much interest in the sport throughout much of Asia.
“Very, very minor sport in Japan,” driver Mitsuaki Shiga said through a translator.
So Omoto is going with what he has.
“So maybe about 10 years ago, Japan was trying to play the same tactic as European teams, but we came to realize that we can never win if we’re just copying the European style,” Omoto said. “So we are confident that our physical and the speed are the best in the world. So therefore capitalize on that characteristic.”
So Japan became the sport’s biggest pest, swarming around its opponents and looking to speed up the tempo whenever possible. It relies on all sorts of cuts to create to openings on offense, and the threat of counterattacks helps make up for its lack of size defensively.
The strategy requires an incredible fitness level - Shiga and his teammates just might spend more time swimming laps than actually playing water polo.
“Sometimes we swim like 10,000 meters. But at least (2,000) to 3,000 meters we swim every day,” Shiga said.
Japan is making its ninth appearance in the men’s water polo tournament at the Olympics, qualifying as the host nation. It won the Asian Championship for the first time in 2016, beating Kazakhstan 7-6 in the final, but it went 0-5 at the Rio de Janeiro Games in its first Olympics since 1984.
It got off to a solid start Sunday in its first game of the Tokyo Olympics, but the U.S. rallied for a 15-13 win. It was tied with Hungary at halftime Tuesday before the world’s most successful country in Olympic water polo pulled away for a 16-11 victory.
“Playing offense against them … it’s unbelievably difficult,” Hungary player Balazs Erdelyi said, “because they are so fast and they are so agile and they get there in a factor of a second, so it’s almost impossible to play normal offense against them.”
While Japan‘s scheme is mostly about its best chance for success, Omoto is hoping it also helps increase interest in water polo in the country - especially with the added exposure that goes along with the Olympics.
“Speed, agility and fantastic shots and so forth are very important,” he said. “So we are trying to achieve that.”
Before Japan and Hungary jumped into the water, the U.S. earned its second straight win with a 20-3 victory over South Africa. Ben Hallock scored four times, and Jesse Smith played almost 11 minutes in his first appearance in his fifth Olympics.
“It just felt great,” Smith said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I feel really lucky and grateful that we have the Games going on. It’s been a tough year, for everybody, so it felt really good to get a game in, you know, as an athlete.”
Spain also moved to 2-0, holding off Montenegro for an 8-6 victory. Serbia, which won gold at the 2016 Olympics, pounded Kazakhstan 19-5 for its first win in Tokyo, and Italy rallied for a 6-6 tie against Greece. Australia topped Croatia 11-8 in the final game of the day.
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