The Triumph of Champions: Dragan Jovanovic and Team Canada

Joan Gould
Water Polo Planet

"It is with pride and excitement that Water Polo Canada announces the Men’s team has qualified to participate in the 2008 Beijing Olympics! Against tremendous odds, with phenomenal belief in their abilities, and detailed preparation, the Canadian men entered the pool in Oradea on Friday, March 7th to play against the home team Romanians. At the end of the fourth quarter, stunned silence filled the packed auditorium because the Canadians stood victorious:  9 – 8.

All who have participated in the current men’s team can acknowledge the significant effort which has gone into this victory. We applaud all involved – the athletes, the coaches, the managers, the trainers, the parents, and others. Tremendous sacrifices have been made and now, a spot in Beijing awaits the men’s team. From all of us here in Canada who waited with baited breath to receive updates about your progress, we salute you – your remarkable feat, your teamwork, and your belief in each other. We are proud of you. Here’s to you in Beijing! "

~Water Polo Canada's Board to Canadian Olympic Committee, March 12, 2008

Dragan JovanovicAfter failing to qualify for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Water Polo Canada hired Dragan Jovanovic as Head Coach to lead the Men's program. Jovanovic was a water polo goaltender from 1978-2000 in the former Yugoslavia.

For the past 3 years,  international fans have watched Jovanovic’s team become progressively better in a sport that is not native to Canada…no sticks, no pucks, and all hip checking out of sight… prompting all to say…just who IS this guy and what has he done with Canada??

For a native English speaker, it was impossible to find any background information on the web about Jovanovic. Lacking fluency in Serbo Croatian and with rusty Cyrillic, I turned to my favorite Serbian coach, Nikola Malezonov to fill me in;

“Jovanovic was one of the best Goalkeepers in Serbia in  '90. He won the bronze medal with the National Team on European Championship in 97' and led his team to fifth in 98' World Championships. He was the leader of the new wave of Great Serbian goalkeepers. Shefik, Kuljaca, Soro came after him with huge shoes to fill. He was one of the most important players in Becej's empire both in Serbia and the Euro club scene. He won several national trophies. On the Euro scene in his era, Becej was always one of the top teams. Jovanovic was always one of the most sophisticated goalkeepers in Yugoslavia, always knowing where his players were and leading his team with a very good example. This is one of Serbias best players for tactics, game and strategy."

Jovanovic has proven to be the real deal; part motivator, part magician and all pro, quietly propelling a group of young players into the international limelight, qualifying Canada for the Olympics by beating a packed home crowd of Romanians 9-8 and going on to play in the 3rd place game of the neutral qualifier. Touted as a “Miracle” by water polo fans around the world, I have chosen instead, to use the title “Triumph” as an acknowledgement to Coach Jovanovic who used talent, tenacity and motivation to bring this team to an earned win.   In short, it was excellence not a “miracle” that brought Team Canada to where they are today - Priming  for their first “front door” trip to the show…Beijing 2008.

Water Polo Planet was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Coach Jovanovic recently about Team Canada, Oradea and how we, as adjoining nations can work together to improve the sport of Water Polo.

  1. How did you prepare your team for the Oradea qualifier knowing that you would be competing against some of the strongest teams from Europe? What does your team bring to competition that the strong European countries do not have?

As before any competition, no matter what magnitude it is, preparation of the team goes just one way. To perform what we have been practicing, what we have learned and what we know. No more, no less then that. It is pretty simple strategy from one side but very complicated from the other when we are talking about confidence and believing in yourself.

We knew going into this tournament that it will be very hard to qualify and that some of the best water polo countries in the water polo world would be there. We knew that there were 5 strong countries and one more who imported many of the experienced players, and that everyone in the world were looking at them and asking who will be the 5th and 6th who will miss the Olympics. That was our chance. No one was looking at us as a candidate.

The only difference I could find in between Europeans and us is the huge desire that athletes who played for Canada had to win. My guys were eager to show that they are not far behind and to prove that winning against Romania in Melbourne at the World Championship wasn’t an accident or a bad day by Romanians but more a good performance by us and a beginning of a new Team who is coming up.

  1. The average age of your team is somewhere in the area of 23 years old, very young for men’s water polo players who most often do not peak athletically until the late 20’s. Did you know going into Oradea that you had a team that was capable of pulling off a qualifying berth in the Olympics? What strengths did you have to help achieve the first crucial win against Macedonia?

I don’t really believe that age is a crucial thing in water polo and any other sport. There are many examples in many sports in the world where young players are performing very well and these young players are showing new techniques to all the world, who, in some way, will be trying to copy it in the years to come. Our problem was and still is game experience and not age. We don’t have that many strong games during the year and everything we are practicing takes more time to learn than it should.

I was confident, before the Olympic Qualification Tournament began, that we had the tools and knowledge to qualify if and only if we performed everything we have been working on in the last 4 years. I knew it would be enough but on the other side you never know how the Team will react to many obstacles of the in and out of the pool that they haven’t faced many times before and many of them never before.

  1. You entered the game against Romania knowing that it was a “go hard or go home” winner takes all match. How do you prepare a young, underdog visiting team from the Americas to play against a packed house of Eastern European hometown fans? Did you know that you had the right stuff to win?

As I said before I knew we have and we had right stuff to win. The most important thing before the game was to completely take away any pressure from my Team and convince my athletes that huge pressure is on home Team. That was a huge task and we didn’t really have much time to do so. When you say Team from Americas against Eastern Europeans, it doesn’t really matter where the Team is coming from. What it matters is the water polo skills and knowledge which will always decide who is a winner and who goes home. This is something I have been trying to explain athletes in Canada since day 1. European Teams have many advantages but they don’t have everything. It is a huge mistake thinking that everything that comes from Europe is the best and the greatest. There are many things that come from North America that are better, much better then what any other continent has. Taking good stuff from anyone in the world and putting it into the system where you are in a way that works for that climate is the key.

  1. Canada is a large country geographically with small pockets of water polo from the east coast to the west coast.  How often is your Men’s National Team able to practice together? Are they paid training salaries by Canadian Water Polo or are they self funded? What can the Canadian public do to better support this team?

Men’s Team is centralized in Calgary all year round. We function as a Club team and we always train together. That is a good and bad in a way. Good side of it is that we have much more time to spend together and work together and I really don’t know of any National team that has those kind of conditions. Bad part is that Clubs in Canada don’t have their best players almost ever, Young kids in the Clubs don’t have anyone to look up to, to learn from, to see. Canadian League is not really possible because there are no financial resources to fly National Team athletes back home to play league games therefore the League is not strong enough. Many problems our problems are similar to those in the USA, but I believe that we have the key for that and we have already started working on it. In a few years I believe that Canada could have the best system in the World with coordination between Club programs, League and National Team Program, everything in order to have more and better athletes.

National Team athletes have a compensation program called carding. Their school is paid for, they get some money to live on monthly and some other small benefits. If we compare that with Europe, it is way under the lowest paid player but it isn’t that bad
in my opinion. Yes, athletes are not rich, parents have to contribute towards their living cost etc…. but I can’t say its nothing. If that monthly cheque were a little higher it would help. The biggest problem we are facing is loosing athletes as soon as they are done with their school since there are many opportunities and very well paid jobs around outside of water polo.

Age group National teams are completely self funded and that is a huge problem. We are loosing the best athletes who can not afford to pay for 3-4 weeks in Europe plus centralization during the summer. Hopefully in the future and with this success, Governing bodies and private sponsors will help us to overcome this issue. Honestly if now is not the time to invest into this talented Team, I don’t really know when it will be.

  1. Canada and the United States share similar problems in developing water polo: geography, distance, lack of funding and age group pipelines.  When you took over Canada’s program, what did you consider to be your largest problem and how did you solve it?

Distance is a huge problem but as I said before I believe that we have the solution for that as well in the future. We have to look at the systems that other successful sports running in North America have and to try to find something similar that will work for our sport. You know that the NBA and NHL are running systems of regional games and when they go to the other side of the country, they stay there for a while and play many games so that travel is less expensive per game. We have to do something similar within our resources.

Coaching was one of the biggest problems that we faced and are still facing. There are not many full time coaches and even if there is money for a full time job, there are not many people who would take that chance and become a Coach for career. Some of the more experienced Coaches have lost the interest for National Team so we had to start from the beginning. Now, I believe that we have a solid coaching pipeline for the future.

Professional approach to the sport was a huge issue. I still remember that we had to share the pool time at the beginning (there were just 4 lanes to train in). Financial resources were very limited and people didn’t really believe in Men’s Team. Origin of all of these problems was inside ourselves. Lack of confidence in ourselves created a lack of belief from everyone else. It is that simple and that is something that we had to change from day one. In the pool and out of the pool this change had to happen. That battle still continues but I guess it will be a little easier right now. There is a certain weight in our words right now and I am hoping people will listen to us.

  1. Many of us (in the USA) believe that the NCAA is a detriment to Olympic men's water polo development as it limits playing seasons at a critical time of development (age 18-23). Canadian universities have recently approached the NCAA about joining the NCAA for intercollegiate athletics. Do you support this as a growth movement for Canadian Men’s Water Polo?

I wouldn’t say it is a detriment. The NCAA could be a great league and a tool for developing great athletes but some changes have to be made to allow that to happen. If the same system and limits are as they are today remain in place, it won’t help USA Water Polo ever. With a little bit of willingness from all parties involved it could be developed into the biggest and the best league in the world which could provide thousands of excellent water polo players. Just the number of athletes in California, in High Schools, Colleges, Universities and the Clubs is fascinating. I was having the coffee with some of the National team Coaches recently and when I told them the fact of USA had at one point 2500 girls age 16-18 in a tryout camp, they couldn’t believe it. No country in the world has as many athletes as the USA has. It must be that something else is wrong. That is really just my view as I don’t live down there and can’t really comment more about it without more information.

To answer your question, I am not and I will not support Canadian Water Polo players going to NCAA until those changes are made. Once they are made we can talk about it again.

  1. We have recently heard a proposal suggesting that the USA, Mexico and Canada work together to develop a regional Men’s Semi Professional League with West coast teams of all 3 countries and east coast teams from Canada and the USA playing preliminaries with crossover play for quarter-semi and finals. Is this a realistic solution to the lack of playing time that both USA and Canadian National team athletes have? Is it more practical to send out national team players to Europe even with limited places for non Europeans?

Dragan JovanovicThis is something I have talked about with both Azevedo and Schroeder and that I do and I will support. This isn’t anything new. It has been around while for awhile and it was successful and worked very well. I am not sure why that collaboration stopped but it is something that needs to be re-established. If we are always going to send the best players to Europe to play there and gain more experience, how do we think we will develop new athletes here at home? Who they are going to look up to? Who they are going to copy? How will they see the best shots, motions in the water, blocks and everything else if they can’t see it from the best? Right now the situation is that we have to send them to Europe but hopefully in the future it will change.

The only chance in my mind is that we have a counter league to European leagues so that we actually can develop better athletes which won’t financially burn us down. Would that collaboration involve Canada, USA, Mexico, Cuba and even Australia or would Brazil and some other South American countries be involved, it’s another question but we need to start somewhere. I am hoping that Canada and USA can be initiators for that kind of, I wouldn’t say league, I’d say project for now.

Canada is very fortunate in having someone with Coach Jovanovic's ability to seek solutions from within the system. He has taken a raw team from an under supported system, magnified the positives, marginalized the negatives and the entire system emerged as winners in only 4 short years. As he says...the US has more players and resources than anyone else in the world. Hopefully, we will begin to collaborate with our close neighbors who share many of the same impediments as we do and develop American solutions that work.

We will be watching Canada's progress in the upcoming Olympic games closely. The USA and Canada (men) are in opposite brackets with Canada facing Spain, Hungary, Montenegro, Greece and China. The USA faces Serbia, Croatia, Italy and Germany and China. The top 3 teams from each bracket advance to the quarter finals.

As closure to this article, I am adding the quote from FINA Press Commissioner  Russell McKinnon who was present in Oradea and sending me regular media updates with his infamous Australian verve…

"Oradea, Romania (March 7).— A pall hung over the Ioan Alexandrescu Pool here as the unthinkable happened and Romania did NOT qualify for the Beijing Olympic Games.In a major upset Canada, a team that hasn’t attended the Olympic Games since 1984 when it entered by the back door in the international boycott and by hosting them in Montreal in 1976, beat the home team 9-8 in front of 1500 spectators.

When the crowd had filed out in near silence, head coach Vlad Hagiu was still riveted to his chair in despair. The dreams of nation had been shattered. Canada gained the victory in a spectacular second quarter, coming from 2-0 down to an impressive 6-5 up. The margin increased to two by the final break and then to three in the fourth. With 4:29 remaining there was still time for Romania to come back but despite goals to Georghe Dunca and Ramiro Georgescu, and a chance on extra in the final seconds, a Romanian accidentally handed the ball to Canada and the dream was gone.

Canada’s dream was just starting. Head coach Dragan Jovanovic said he was, naturally, feeling really good. “I told the boys if we survived the first half and the Romanian spectators then we had a chance. The first quarter we did not perform well but all the pressure was on Romania, who was expected to win. “ I tried to keep the team calm and stick to our goals. We have a huge heart and commitment and had an incredible desire in this game."

~ Russell McKinnon, FINA Press Commission