If you ask any player which national team is the toughest to play against, and where, they’ll probably give you the same answer: Hungary, specifically in Budapest (more specifically, Margaret Island).
So, for Team USA’s women’s national team, securing their fourth successive World Championship title in the final against the hosts was a significant achievement, even considering their highly decorated history. It was also a big accomplishment for the Magyars to progress further than their men’s team, which also suffered defeat at the hands of the USA in the 5th-8th semi-finals.
However, there was no denying that last year in Budapest was the women’s teams best opportunity to become World Champions since their sole triumph in 2005 in Montreal, Canada. Attila Biro, the women’s head coach, acknowledged this in his post-game interview.
A year after the festivities in Budapest, the Hungarians have come full circle. They went from a tepid 5th place finish in Split to consecutive top-four finishes at World Aquatic tournaments in Tenerife and Long Beach. Now, they head to Japan, ready to show they are serious contenders on the world stage.
A quintessential Hungarian has the three ‘S’s’ at their disposal: skill, strategy, and strength. A player who epitomises these qualities is the formidable Hungarian centre-back, Zsuzsana Mate.
Although born in Slovakia, Mate has become a seasoned Hungarian international and has made her mark as a dominant force at 2 meters. She has been a mainstay in the Hungarian national team since the Tokyo Olympics, making all the teams that Attila Biro has selected. She firmly holds her position in the spine of the team.
“We are looking forward to playing,” says Mate. “We need to focus on ourselves. We have this opportunity to practice tactics and bring everything together. The team spirit is great, and everybody knows what we are training and fighting for.”
What they are training and fighting for is the title of World Champions. Is Hungary strong enough to win this tournament? Mate isn’t looking too far ahead.
“We don’t want to talk about chances. Everybody knows why we are going there. All games start with 0-0 and last 32 minutes. The medal games are in the second week of the championship, so they’re still far away. We are always concentrating and preparing for the next game. Our first one is against Canada.”
Hungary won the silver medal in this competition last year, but unlike then, they won’t have the swarms of home support that pushed them all the way to the final. Although the tournament ultimately ended with a degree of disappointment, Zsuzanna holds strong memories from that experience.
“Last year gave us a lot of new experiences that we can use now and in the future. It’s an amazing memory that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. It was incredible to play at home in front of the Hungarian supporters, singing the national anthem together. I still get goosebumps whenever I think about the final. But as it was last year, we can’t live in the past.”
With a silver medal under their belt, there is now a higher expectation for the Hungarian women’s national team, especially since they outshone the men’s dismal 7th place finish last time. Nevertheless, Mate believes that the expectations are always the same.
“Hungary has always had good water polo teams, both women and men, as well as other nationalities. Everyone wants to win. It’s easy to say it at the beginning of the competition, but it’s even harder to achieve it. We know who we are and what we can do in the water. We always focus on the next game and step by step reach our goals.”
Prior to the World Championships in Fukuoka, Hungary played two friendly games with Italy, which they easily won. They also traveled to the USA for the World Cup Finals, making a stop in Canada along the way. However, Mate encountered a visa problem and was denied access to the United States. Consequently, she couldn’t compete in Long Beach. She explains:
“I was in shock when Birge (Attila Biro) informed me about this news. Actually, I realized it when I was at the airport on my way home, and I had to return to Budapest while the girls went to the USA from Canada. I was both mad and sad at the same time. The USA has strict rules about visas. Although I was born in Slovakia, my Slovakian passport expired a long time ago. Somehow, this information was found out too late, and that was the consequence. But I didn’t want to waste my time thinking about this situation. I did everything at home. I asked for swim sets, leg sets, and gym programs, and I worked very hard at home. So once the team came back, I could join them and be in good condition.”
Mate always plays with a smile on her face and will continue to be an integral part of Hungary’s future plans. Those with a keen eye, particularly for Marvel, will notice that Mate carries a little mascot in her robe before games. “I am close friends with Bexi (Rebecca Parkes eds.). We both love Marvel and superheroes. Many years ago, Bexi gave me a small Hulk as a birthday gift.” she explains. “Somehow, it gives us a feeling that we have superpowers like the heroes.” she joked.
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