BUDAPEST, Hungary — The spirit of the 1956 Olympics lives on in the Hungary men’s water polo team.
Some 61 years after the infamous “Blood in the Water” game against the Soviet Union, Hungary routed Russia 14-5 to book a place in the semifinals at the world championships on Tuesday.
Hungary captain Denes Varga scored four to set up a match with Greece on Thursday. Defending champion Serbia and Croatia, the 2015 finalists, are in the other semi.
Most of the spectators on Tuesday weren’t around for the 1956 Olympic match in Melbourne, Australia, arguably the most well known game of water polo ever played. But memories are long.
“Everyone in Hungary remembers this match. The politics, the history is played in the pool,” said Krisztina Kelemen, whose fingernails were painted in the Hungarian colors of red, white and green.
It seemed as if it was on the players’ minds, too, as they tore into Russia. Their names had been greeted with thunderous applause and cheers from the partisan crowd, while the silence that greeted the Russians’ names left them very much alone.
A guttural roar from Varga before the game set the fans off again, and an early goal from Norbert Hosnyanszky kept their spirits high.
“Ria, ria, Hungaria!” they chanted, again and again.
With less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter, it was 4-0 to Hungary, the same score at the end in 1956. Russia, which then hit the post, was left reeling when Marton Vamos made it 5-0 before the first break.
Punches were thrown at the beginning of the second, but it didn’t stop the Hungarian advance, or the party. Fans whooped, chanted, screamed and yelled, then danced and kissed as the home team’s goals kept coming. Hosnyanszky also scored four.
The goal-frame and inspired goalkeeping from Viktor Nagy ensured a night to forget for Russia. Nagy had the final say, another brilliant save before the final whistle started the party.
“We’re going to win the title!” fan David Demeter boasted.
No country has taken to water polo quite like Hungary. With nine Olympic titles and five world crowns between the men’s and women’s teams, it’s the most successful nation.
“We love the sport. We don’t know why,” fan Zsombor Nagy said.
Leslie Rethelyi was 16 at the time of the “Blood in the Water” match and he still remembers it vividly.
“It was a very strong and rude water polo match,” Rethelyi said.
It was played just weeks after Soviet forces invaded Hungary to crush an anti-communist uprising, and it was ended early as the referee feared the fighting among the fired-up players in the pool would spread to the stands. It came to symbolize Hungary’s struggle against Soviet rule.
The match was riddled with punches low and high, head-butts, and grabbing. Players came out of the pool bleeding. The sight of blood sent the already heated spectators wild. The game was ended with less than a minute to go with tensions close to breaking point. Hungary, which was leading 4-0, was awarded the victory, and Australian police escorted the Russians to safety.
The Hungarians went on to their fourth Olympics win. The image of star Ervin Zador’s blood-stained face was published in newspapers around the world. Zador and other 1956 Hungarian Olympians received political asylum in the United States. He said the match never turned personal.
“It should be clear that we never had any ill feelings toward the Russian people. It was just a match at the wrong time and the wrong place,” he said at a reunion of the sides in 2002. Zador died in 2012, in California at age 76.
Hungary and the Soviet Union appeared in three of the first four world championship finals. But despite appearances on Tuesday and the teams’ history, Hungary coach Tamas Marcz said the 1956 game played no part in motivating his side.
“We only think of the next match. We don’t think about the semifinal or final, we only think about this match. We want to play for a medal,” Marcz told The Associated Press. “The motivation for these guys is to be the best, better than the opposite team.”