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Yugoslavs Are Ready for Return to Glory

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nothing like a little pressure.

Goran Ciercovic, the general secretary of the Yugoslavian Water Polo Federation, has already declared this the “best team that has ever played for Yugoslavia.”

A bold statement, considering Yugoslavia won Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988. But others may start believing.

Yugoslavia continued to dominate the UPS International Cup with a 10-4 victory over Australia Thursday at the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center. Yugoslavia (3-0) faces its toughest test in the tournament tonight, when it plays the United States (2-0-1) at 8:30.

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Ciercovic’s assessment might just turn out to be prophetic.

“I’m confident that he is right,” goalie Aleksandar Sostar said. “The 1988 team was really good, but in my opinion this is the strongest team I have ever played on.”

Sostar would know. He was the starting goalie for the 1988 team. And at 36, he shows no signs of slowing down.

He has allowed 10 goals in three tournament games.

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Sostar is the link to Yugoslavia’s glory days. Besides his 1988 experience, he was the backup goalie in 1984.

Yugoslavia defeated the United States in the gold medal game both times.

“His experience is great,” said Aleksandar Sapic, who scored a team-high two goals in the victory over Australia. “He has played in the Olympics, the World Cup and all the big international tournaments. He is definitely one of the best goalies in the world.”

Sapic, 22, and Sostar are teammates with Becej, a club team in Yugoslavia. Six other national team players play for Becej, which won the European Cup this year.

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Yugoslavia’s national water polo program was able to sustain itself through wars and sanctions because of the Becej team. Yugoslavia was banned from defending its Olympic gold medal in 1992, but with so many top players on one club team, the program survived.

“I don’t pay attention to politics,” Sapic said. “Like all the other sports, we had problems. But with our talent concentrated on one team, it helped us through the tough years.”

Yugoslavia finished eighth in 1996, but did not have Sostar, who was considered too old at the time. No one would claim that after his play in the UPS tournament.

He allowed four goals before being pulled after three periods against Italy, the 1992 gold medal team, in the opener Tuesday. He gave up three in three periods against the United States B team Wednesday.

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Sostar wasn’t tested often by Australia Thursday. His teammates blocked four shots before they reached him. But he made two solid saves in the first period when the game was close, showing his reactions haven’t slowed.

“It is amazing that he has played so long and so well,” United States Coach John Vargas said. “He has all that experience and he is still on top of his game.”

And the top is where Sostar thinks Yugoslavia is headed.

“It is always big to go to the Olympics, but winning a gold medal this time would be even bigger,” Sostar said. “That is our goal. That is what I’m looking for. Whether this will be my last, I can’t say.”

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In other games, the United States toyed with the U.S. B team, made up of younger players. Wolf Wigo scored four goals in the 14-3 rout. The United States led, 9-0, at halftime, scoring five goals on breakaways.

In the other pool play game, Croatia defeated Italy, 9-8.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Water Polo

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*What: UPS Cup Men’s International Tournament

* When: Today-Sunday

* Where: USA Water Polo National Aquatic Center, located on the Joint Forces Training Base, 11200 Lexington Dr., Los Alamitos

* Basics: Round-robin tournament gives U.S. coaches their final look at athletes competing for spots on Olympic team, which will be named Aug. 1.

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* Today’s schedule: 6 p.m.--Italy vs. U.S. B team; 7:15--Australia vs. Croatia; 8:30--U.S. vs. Yugoslavia.

* Tickets: All sessions--$32 for adults, $20 for students; individual sessions--$10 for adults, $6 for students; finals only--$12 for adults, $8 for students.

* Website: https://www.ups-cup.com

* Information: City of Los Alamitos, Recreation and Community Services Dept., (562) 430-1073

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