RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rodrigo Perrone, wearing a blue water polo cap, deftly made his way through the packed stands at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre. The 8-year-old Perrone then settled into his father’s lap to watch his uncle and Brazil take on world champion Serbia on Wednesday.
“I love soccer,” the bubbly little boy said through a translator, “and it’s like soccer in the water.”
Rodrigo is still on the fence — “I will play one day and the next day I will not,” he said matter-of-factly — but Brazil’s men’s and women’s water polo teams are hoping the excitement of the Olympics will help them grow the sport in their soccer-crazy country.
Winning helps, of course, and Brazil’s men’s team has been the tournament’s most pleasant surprise so far. Playing in front of another big crowd — with green-and-yellow-clad fans waving flags, singing and cheering right to the final horn — the home country posted an impressive 6-5 victory over the gold-medal favorites. It leads Group B with a perfect 3-0 record.
“I think all the work we did for this Olympic Games already change a little bit the water polo in Brazil,” said driver Gustavo Guimaraes, who connected on a tiebreaking penalty shot with 46 seconds left. “The media, the person like ‘Oh, what’s the water polo?’ A lot of people doesn’t know what’s this sport, and it’s an expensive sport.
“But the most important thing is that if you are able to do always better and do a good example inside the water, it’s going to change this, and I hope water polo in Brazil becomes like volleyball, soccer, something like this.”
Brazil’s players celebrated the victory by waving their caps and applauding to the roaring crowd from the center of the pool.
“We had to do this. The crowd was amazing, so we have to go there and say thank you for everybody,” smiling center back Felipe da Costa E Silva said.
Brazil qualified for the Olympics as the host country. It’s the first Olympic appearance for the men’s team since 1984, and the debut for the women’s squad — underlining water polo’s status on the sporting landscape in Brazil.
While Olympic success is new for Brazil, it’s more of the same for its coach, Ratko Rudic, who has guided three different countries to a total of four gold medals. It also has the talented Felipe Perrone and big Josip Vrlic, who combined for three goals against Serbia, but it’s clear the country’s success begins with its veteran coach.
“Ratko is the best coach in the world,” Guimaraes said. “He won everything.”
U.S. captain Tony Azevedo, a Rio native who plays professionally for Sesi in Sao Paulo, also is hoping Brazil’s success leads to more water polo players in the country.
“Swimming’s a huge sport here. So is water polo,” Azevedo said, “and now finally they have a team that they can cheer for. They have a team that’s good. They have one of the best players in the world with Felipe Perrone. It’s exciting, and I think Brazilians, and you’ll see, it’s not just water polo, it’s all sports out there, especially Brazilian sports, but water polo is finally getting its name out there in the country and I love that.”
Before Brazil’s win over Serbia, the United States beat France 6-3 for its first victory of the tournament. Josh Samuels scored three times and McQuin Baron made 11 saves.
Also Wednesday, Australia edged Japan 8-6, Greece and Hungary played to an 8-8 draw and undefeated Italy earned a 6-5 win against Montenegro. In the final match of the day, Spain beat Croatia 9-4.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap