Cold War Foe – Good Time-Keeper

Objective refereeing is important in all team sports. In fact, it can be a crucial factor in a match between equal rivals. There are other officials, however, who rarely get mentioned, but whose correct or incorrect actions can profoundly affect the outcome of a match – it is clock judges!

In the women’s water polo final at the Olympic games in Sydney-2000, the result could have been different had the clock officiating not been accurate. An Australian player, Yvette Higgins, took a Gold medal winning shot after a ‘free throw’ time stoppage with 3 seconds remaining in the match against the US team. The time keeper was precise by not stopping the clock too late or restarting it too early to possibly lose those precious seconds for Australia.

In the men’s basketball final at the Olympic games in Munich-1972, the USSR team won Gold for the first time in their history against an unbeatable US team. In that famous match, the American Star players incredibly made a text book positioning mistake and allowed the Soviets to score an unthinkable goal with 3 seconds to go. When the game restarted after a stoppage, a Soviet player, Ivan Edeshko, gave an extremely accurate long-distance pass across the field to Aleksandr Belov who sunk the ball into the basket simultaneously with the finishing siren. The time keeper had to be precise in that case too.

Nowadays, the ‘shot clock’ time in water polo is 30 seconds with 20 seconds for the ‘exclusion time’ thus making precise  time keeping even more important. Previously, the possession and exclusion times used to be unlimited, then 1 minute, then 45 and 35 seconds.

At the world championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador in 1982, the men’s teams of Hungary and the USSR made it to the final. Up until that point, the Soviet team had a good tournament. In most matches, we were able to create a good goal difference by the third quarter, if not by half-time, to be winning comfortably. Hungary, on the other hand, was not playing well and had a difficult run.

In the final match though everything worked for them and nothing for us. The Hungarians were converting every goal scoring chance, we did not.

Personally, I felt exhausted during that match. Before the final, I had been playing the whole tournament without being replaced. The only time when I was on the bench for 1 and a half quarters was against the Spanish team. A Cuban referee, Eugenio Martinez, excluded me when I was marking Manuel Estiarte – that was my duty according to our game-plan. Because I was too slow to react to that call, Martinez ‘rolled’ me for the rest of the match with a replacement. The reason why I was ‘too slow’ was to not give the Spanish an opportunity for a quick conversion of that extra-man. The coaches correctly reprimanded me for ‘overdoing’ it.

Two thirds of our team consisted of experienced players who had already had the Olympic (1980) and World (FINA) Cup (1981) Gold, and European (1981) Silver medals winning experience. Others were younger players; among them, Nurlan Mendigaliev, Nikolai Smirnov, Aleksey Vdovin and Aleksandr Kleimenov who had only been in the National squad for 1-2 years and were just gaining the experience of playing at the highest level.

The coaches, Boris Popov and Viacheslav Skok, took a conservative approach in giving a ‘baptism of fire’ to the younger players. Their pool time was carefully managed. That cautiousness was the result of what had happened at the 1981 European championships in Yugoslavia. In the match against the eventual title winners, West Germany, Popov experimented simultaneously replacing 4 experienced players with younger ones in the second quarter. The Germans, who had a very good team then with Hagen Stamm and  Frank Otto in its ranks, scored 5 unanswered goals. We failed to catch up and had to be content with Silver medals only. Several players dared to point that error out to our Head-coach after the game and Popov admitted that it was his mistake. But we won the European championships in 1983.

The fourth quarter of the final match in Ecuador started with the score-line 5:8 against us. To win the world championships, we had to score at least 3 unanswered goals since a draw would have been good enough as we had a better goal difference. By the end of the match, we managed to eliminate the deficit. With under a minute to go, the Hungarians were awarded an extra-man opportunity. They had about 40 seconds to convert it. As we were defending, I remember constantly looking at the clock – boy, how slow it was ticking then.

During those 40 seconds, Georgy Gerendash and Tamas Farago took three shots between them and every time it was blocked either by our goalkeeper, Evgeny Sharonov, or a field player’s arm. Three times the ball deflected into a ‘neutral territory’ and all three times the Hungarians were awarded a free throw in their favour.

Those who understand water polo know that a defending team usually gets a ‘sympathetic’ judgment under those circumstances as the attacking team had its chances. An American referee, Bill Frady, who in that instance was an ‘attacking’ ref for the Hungarians, was making those calls.

A fourth shot, taken by Georgy Gerendash, penetrated into our goals, we believed, after the end of the match siren. Nevertheless, Frady pointed to the centre of the field indicating that the goal stood. It was dramatic and it was over for us.

At the time our perception was that a referee who came from the United States of America, USSR’s foe, nailed us. Subsequently, Bill Frady served as a FINA Technical Water Polo Committee Member from 2005-2009. According to the reports that I heard, Bill was TWPC’s excellent hard working member and his departure was a great loss to that Committee.

Nobody expected that immediately after, John Felix, also an American, who was a clock official, would rise to his feet to declare that the match was over before that goal was scored. Felix was firm and adamant in his opinion. I have not seen before or after that day a time-keeper who would over-rule a referee. Subsequently, the FINA officials examined the video record and arrived at a unanimous conclusion that the game was over before the goal was scored.

The USSR team became world champion for the second time in its history. The first time was in 1975 in Cali, Colombia.

Final standing: 1. USSR 2. Hungary 3. West Germany 4. Netherlands 5. Cuba 6. USA 7. Yugoslavia 8. Spain 9. Italy 10. China 11. Australia 12.Greece 13. France 14. Canada 15. Egypt 16. New Zealand

During the Cold War between East and West, people’s perceptions on both sides were affected by mutually demonizing ideological propaganda.

In Guayaquil, we learned that there were fair and honest ‘foes’ and that decency is a universal quality no matter who you are and where you come from.

It is important to have good time-keepers!

About Erkin Эркин Shagaev Шагаев
European, world, Olympic champion, two times World Cup winner Чемпион Европы, мира, Олимпийских игр, двукратный обладатель Кубка мира

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