By Sarah Young
LONDON (Reuters) - The army of fans cheered and chanted just as loud, and there was no holding back with the flags and facepaints, but the Hungarian fans were not watching the gold medal match they could be forgiven for expecting, but a clash to decide who came fifth.
Hungary, winners of the gold in 2000, 2004 and 2008 came fifth in the Olympics. It was the end of an era, one dominated by an old guard of four Hungarian players, Peter Biros, Tamas Kasas, Gergely Kiss and Zoltan Szecsi who played on a team which for three Games was unbeatable.
"This is the end of my era. A new generation will come," Hungary's goalkeeper Szecsi told reporters.
There were glimpses of the grace, skill and speed which helped the Hungarians win three golds, but only glimpses.
"I think we were tired in the head, I don't know why," Szecsi said, when asked about Hungary's defeats by Serbia, Montenegro and Italy.
The Hungarians claimed their desire for gold burned just as strongly despite almost a decade of the sort of stand-out Olympic success that only few will ever taste.
The biggest battle that they lost appeared not to be against the Serbians, who were tipped to take on their mantle, nor the Italians, who ended the Hungarian campaign in the quarters, but against themselves.
"The last 20 years I played matches where everybody expected always to win, and expected me to win and play well, so this part, I say enough, I don't want it. It was too much," said Tamas Kasas.
The Hungarians struggled to explain why they failed to shine liked they used to.
"It's very hard to say. We could talk for the whole night about this," Gergely Kiss said.
He shrugged his shoulders, Hungarian aspirations of a record four golds in a row were shattered, but look at what they had achieved.
"Four Olympic Games played and three gold medals, I think it would be in everybody's dreams."
Instead, it was Croatia who stole the show, not by doing anything amazing, but by executing a defense so strong that team after team failed to breach it.
The Croatians were crowned Olympic champions after a slick disposal of Italy, giving the men's game a new title-holder, two days after the U.S. women won gold, in what was their first time at the top of the podium.
The American women's victory ended 12 years of near misses and enabled Heather Petri and Brenda Villa, the closest thing the women's game has to Hungary's veteran Olympians, to end their careers on a high.
In the men's tournament, the intensely physical and aggressive style of water polo played by Croatia and the other former Yugoslavian countries of Serbia and Montenegro prevailed in London, with silver medalists Italy being the only non-Balkan country to make it to the last four.
"They have a lot more culture for water polo in their countries. In Italy, everyone and everyone's dog wants to play football. In those countries, everyone wants to be a water polo player," Italy's Pietro Figlioli said.
Croatia, winning their first gold medal, will look to emulate the Hungarian feat of claiming title after title.
"This is the first, I hope it's not the only one," Croatian player Niksa Dobud said.
Italy, a younger team, were also already thinking ahead to the next Games in Rio de Janeiro.
"I dreamed of gold, but we're a young team, only training together for three years, so we will come back again in Rio," Italy's Maurizio Felugo said.
With triple gold medalists Kasas and Szecsi announcing their retirement, the Hungarian side that Italy and Croatia will no doubt meet in Rio will be a very different beast, a beast eager to re-establish the country's reputation in the sport which is so hugely popular at home.
"Hungary will have a good team as long as water polo exists," believes Kiss and team mate Daniel Varga was even more adamant.
"I know our future, I know the juniors, I know our systems. I believe in the Hungarian water polo tradition," he said.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)