Clint Dempsey patrolling the World Cup pitch in an Irish national team kit? Kobe Bryant leading the fast break for Team Italia? Impossible! Well, at least astronomically unlikely.
Not so much for Tony Azevedo, widely considered the best American water polo player ever. The only four-time winner of the Cutino award (collegiate water polo’s equivalent of the Heismann Trophy), three times the high school player of the year in the sport’s heartland, Southern California, since his youth the phenom was destined for greatness, a standard which he has already achieved by any measure: four-time US Olympian, 2008 Beijing sliver medalist, among the highest paid professionals in Europe.
But now the 32-year-old aquatic superstar is firmly at the center of a transcontinental brouhaha laced with injured national pride, accusations of unseemly cash transfers, and ever shifting allegiances. The ardent global water polo community is aflutter with rumors that he will trade the Stars and Stripes speedo for a (tinier?) Brazilian one in time for the Rio Olympics.
The hosts of the 2016 games, as such given an automatic place in the tournament, have made a strong push to quickly improve their historically mediocre squad by importing the world’s most successful coach, Croatian Ratko Rudic, and a coterie of mainly European stars with varying degrees of connection with the new mother country. Rudic was the least controversial get, an itinerant genius who brought gold-medal success to Yugoslavia, Italy, and his native Croatia, with a notable stint as leader of the US team in the early oughts. At that time he began to cultivate the talents of a young Tony Azevedo, and is widely credited with building the foundation of America’s surprising 2008 Olympic silver medal squad (a view popular especially among sniffier Europeans, who can’t fathom US success without Continental influence).
His signing was a natural prelude to gathering better talent. Thus followed Croatian Josep Vrlic and Serbian goalkeeper Slobodan Soro, both elite players at the highest levels of European professional water polo, who were offered naturalized citizen status. The draw was even easier for Felipe Perrone, Rio-born but long a member of the Spanish national team. He happily repatriated to play for his native country.
Big deal, right? Not so in this country, surely. But the transfers stirred passions in South America and across the Atlantic, where the game has a particularly vocal following.
The blazing Serbian swimmer Milorad Cavic, famous for being out-touched by millimeters by Michael Phelps in the 2008 Olympics, intimated that Soro’s conversion was half-hearted at least, and a cynical denial of his Serbian national pride (of which there is an abundance).
Perrone’s switch, despite his Brazilian birth, was somewhat dismissed by an Italian site as being prompted by the star’s exclusion from the most recent Spanish national team roster.
Some in the Brazilian press schizophrenically lauded the immediate improvement of their squad while simultaneously calling the Slavic chaps “gringos.”
And, as with all things sports, there’s the money. Our European friends tell us each player will receive at least $200,000 from the Brazilians, while Cavic puts the rumored figure at $400k, at once drawing the admiration and scorn of observers.
Meanwhile, Azevedo made a splash last year announcing he was leaving the legendary Croatian club Jug Dubrovnik for the nearly unheard of Sao Paolo team, SESI. Since his arrival he has enthusiastically used social media to promote his club and the growth of water polo in Brazil. In November he tweeted the same day it was announced that Rudic had been hired. Why should any of this matter to the presumptive five-time US Olympian?
Pure altruism, he might say. Azevedo wrote that his move to Brazil was based solely on his “desire to help develop the sport of water polo.” Its only chance for growth, he said, was “to reach out to countries beyond the perennial powerhouses of Europe.”Cavic, a former poloist and self-professed fan of the sport, sympathizes with that view, calling it a “dying” sport whose powers are over-concentrated in one part of Europe. Only the legitimate expansion of the game outside that region can save it, he says, lending sideways praise to Azevedo’s and Brazil’s efforts. Then there’s the simple fact that, like Perrone, Azevedo was born in Brazil, an understandable rationale for joining his native land’s national squad, especially as the Olympic Games’ next host. Then again, maybe the attachment to Brazil extends only as far as Azevedo’s professional career and the income it generates, and his allegiance to the US national team remains intact.
What do the Brazilians think? Several writers – including Cavic, another Serb, and a local – may have already revealed their prevailing wishes by strongly suggesting that Azevedo has already been or should be heavily recruited to join with Vrlic, Soro, and Perrone. Who could complain about feeling so wanted?
To address all that twisting speculation about his intentions, Azevedo has barely lifted a key-finger, curtly tweeting that it is all based on “rumors” without elaborating.
— Tony Azevedo (@WaterPoloTony) February 23, 2014
Indeed, USA Water Polo is proceeding (under the leadership of a new Serbian coach) as if Azevedo remains committed to the American team, with which he remains in contact, according to someone with knowledge of the organization.
All may be resolved by this fall when Azevedo will have presumably logged one full year of Brazilian residence, after which he can, by Fina rule, commit to the South American team if he so chooses. Azevedo’s last appearance in US colors was at the Fina Cup last July.
Truth is, no one knows.
But none of this matter-of-fact analysis and entertaining speculation can obscure one fact: Azevedo donning the green and yellow in 2016 would be a colossal alteration of the American water polo culture, one in which he is almost uniformly placed on the “Mt. Rushmore” of all-time greats and where many consider him the only thing preventing a US fall to global mediocrity. Such a choice, all reasonable understanding of his legitimately dual-nationality aside, would dramatically change perceptions of the Yankee superstar for years.
All this in a sport that remains largely outside the American public eye, except when its skimpy unis and underwater brutality are featured every quadrennial. Welcome to the passions of international water polo.
James E. Smith is the founder of Total Waterpolo, an online publication dedicated to water polo throughout the United States and beyond. He has been involved in the sport since 1980.
You can follow him on Twitter @TotalWaterpolo