In 2006, then National Team Head Coach Ricardo Azevedo came out to the Northeast Zone Premier League and spent 2 (long) full days at the Princeton Pool watching the competition. It was one of the most impressive displays of public relations I have ever seen…He ran drills and training for the players between games, brought DVD’s of several Euro League Games that he watched and ran through with the players. He sat in the stands with teams before and after they played, spent several games speaking with parents, signing autographs for the young age group players and had his picture taken with nearly every player at the competition. He was tireless in his desire to make the forgotten boys from the Northeast believe that what they were doing was important. He didn’t collect a cent for all of his time and told all the players that he was there to recruit for the National Team…what a huge ego boost that was for a bunch of kids from the CWPA.
I was impressed. So were the myriad of parents he touched with his enthusiasm and personal charm. He was then, and remains, a genuine advocate for the sport, bringing National Team pride and enthusiasm to the very grass roots of the game.
For the past 3 years, Ricardo has been quietly building an impressive program in the small town of Camogli, Italy…an old city of 4,000 on the Italian Riviera between Recco and Portofino.
Italy has always been a bastion of water polo…but with the global economy melt down, many professional water polo clubs throughout Europe are faltering financially. Not so with Camogli where Coach Azevedos charisma, drive and ability to engage the local community has produced nothing short of a miracle… turning a near bankrupt , losing club into a vibrant, successful program, more than quadrupling water polo membership and sending players of all levels to the National Championships where they are triving...and not surprisingly, winning.
From behind the scenes, Ricardo continues to use his contacts and large European network to put US players into professional clubs for the European season, giving them an outlet to play the game in a way that still does not exist here.
Ricardo is back in the USA spennding time with his wife and family until the end of August. If you see him around, take a minute to shake his hand and thank him…for everything he has done and everything he continues to do as one of the world biggest advocates for the sport of water polo.
- You arrived in Camogli as Technical Director to take over a faltering club in last place of A2 (Italian Second Division). In only 3 years, you brought the team up to 1st place in Serie A2 and will now move up to Serie A1 (First Division) next season. How did you accomplish this unbelievable success?
When I arrived at Camogli , they were going through tough times, struggling for money as well as wins. The past president had acquired s players like Sapic, Scegli, Uskokovic, Jelenic and still did not win which caused a shortfall in the budget for the future.
When I came in, my first decision was to build from within, developing our own players by concentrating on fundamentals. With the help of my support staff, we developed the best program in Italy winning the 15& under 3 years in the row, 17& under twice, 19& under once. Most important, we went to the finals of all 3 age groups 3 years in the role.
We have also began our women’s program, bringing them from non existent to Division 2.
- Your winning Pro team this year was the youngest in the league and will continue to be so as you move up to A1 in the fall. How did you get a bunch of young kids ready to beat teams like Naples with seasoned pros like Bencivenga?
I have always believed that if you build programs, teams would come, I increased the number of official scrimmages and created a strong sense of belonging, one that would make players proud of their teammates. In the beginning of the year, everyone said that it was a done deal that Naples would win. Naples was sponsored by a lot of money and bought a team of veterans including multiple Olympians.
The good thing about young players is if they trust you and believe in you, they will walk through walls. We trained all year with adversity and setbacks. During the year I would set up situations in games that would create players who believe in themselves … we won 11 games by 1 goal. I also finished every workout with a playoff challenge either a 6x5 a penalty or a money ball shot..
- High schools in Europe are more difficult than those in the USA with longer days and Saturday classes. Do the kids playing on your Pro team find it difficult to balance high school and professional water polo?
It does create a nightmare scheduling, I group them in 4 groups .
- Players with no Conflicts
- College Players
- Players with other jobs
- Players in High School
I make workouts vary in 4 ways; a pre-written program specializing in the workouts make the adversity special and not a liability. We also gained the confidence of the parents by asking that every player bring their report card (unheard in Europe) to us , and created ways to help kids excel in school as well, even going to talk with teachers during the season.
- Camogli is a town of about 6,000 year round residents yet the age group teams you direct are all of a sudden taking the rest of Italy by storm in nearly all divisions. How have you accomplished this when you are competing with much larger cities and clubs?
Camogli actually has only around 4,000 people living there all year round. Our program has grown from what is the norm in most clubs (25/35) to (120/130). By creating a program instead of just a 10 or 12 & under we have created an aquatic school that encompasses shark levels, black and white levels and a few others. With that, everyone wins by creating more teams while eliminating scores on these levels. Kids were willing to play for fun, and stick around and not quit. My philosophy is, give me a full season with a kid and I get them for life.
- Your club looks like a really cool place. You have an indoor pool, fitness gym, restaurant and bar, ocean beach and year round activities. How much does a family pay to belong to the club each year? How many members does the club have?
The club is a community facility where staff members including myself manage the programs. There is no cost for membership but costs are used for the facility. In general, classes are 10 to 15 euro, sports around 600 euro a year and lap swim and other programs without instruction are 5 euro. We have a total of about 500 members..
- We have been talking a lot about starting a professional water polo league in the USA. I am an advocate of trying to locate pro clubs in smaller towns to reduce costs and generate fans via local pride. Camogli seems to be a great example of that. How many fans do you typically have in attendance at your pro games? Are clubs in larger cities in Italy more successful than those in smaller cities?
We usually have around 600 spectators for league games but during playoffs we had 1500 or more. Small cities are more successful as teams like Recco, Camogli, Nervi, Savonna, Bogliasco, Brescia, Imperia are all small cities of 50,000 or less. Teams Like Rome, Florence and Possilipo (Napoli) have higher costs and struggle for water time. A good example is Rome. In 2009, they quit division 1 after going bankrupt.
- You have always had a great relationship with European coaches and clubs and for many years have been instrumental in placing US players in European Pro Leagues. What is your forecast for the upcoming pro season? Will we see more US players competing in Europe?
Water Polo is a cult sport and as such, we need to expand our knowledge and share with others the needs and problems in order to solve it together. Part of our problem is lack of year around competition in USA, a problem that affects not only our players but the balance of the sport globally. Australia has created their National league with condensed games in a short period of time and constant invitation of club teams to their country. It would be easy for US to do that but in the mean time our players need to play. In 3 years, we have seen over 20 players move around Europe to get that elusive high level competition. Next year (2010-11 season) we could have as many as 15 AMERICANS in Italy alone. We must remember that we have wonderful age group programs in the USA (High School and College) but there is nothing being offered after that . We have to ask ourselves “what happened to last years College seniors?” They worked 10 to 15 years to arrive at the top level and become “has beens” at the age of 23.
- There is a growing trend in traditionally strong European water polo countries of kids moving away from water polo and the sport becoming weaker as a result. You are producing the opposite result in Camogli and have dramatically increased your participation in only 3 years. How have you accomplished this?
Parents are the key, as a club we must recruit the family. With the global financial problems, parents are moving away from costs. Other sports offer different ways to recruit athletes (skating, Bike Cross, Beach Volleyball) are product driven and keep entry fees low as their main money comes from sponsorships or product sales.
At Camogli we have gained the growth socially and physically but more important through education. Some of the programs we offer to our members are English classes, group trips and most important, low cost paths to a national level. I am a big believer that coaches are educators first and as such, we should create paths for our players to become successful.
Universities in US do that by offering scholarships. Where would NBA and NFL be if the kids who perfected their skills in college had not been able to do so because of lack of money? Any program that uses money as a driving force will fail, as athletes are not “products” they are People. Next year, there will be 3 Italian kids coming to Universities in the States; all of them are top level players. All I can say is, investing in a child works.
- There is a lot of talk in Europe, joining many coaches in the USA calling for a change to the rules of the game. What are you hearing (in Europe) as the main complaint about the current game and what solutions are being talked about across Europe?
The rules are not the problem. In the rule book it states, grabbing, fighting and kicking are fouls , the main problem is how these fouls are being called. Water Polo is a high energy game just like soccer. How good would Ronaldo, Messi or Sneider be if they were not able to move because of a shirt being pulled allowing no movement?
We need movement to make the game exciting. Next year along with FINA, the referees have started to call perimeter exclusions and fouls again; this is a great first step. The second step is to work together with coaches and referees to discuss the difference in philosophies. Water Polo is an offensive game… There is the need to understand what teams working for and not get caught up in meaningless whistles. Advantage and creative plays should be rewarded not penalized.
Thirdly, and again, is to work together to build seamless philosophies across the board. In Italy, I have created videos of certain situations . The Refereeing Association has me working with young refs to understand what the team is working for and how a meaningless whistle destroys the play. The Italian teams make their scrimmages available to young refs to come and work practices with an instructor. A good dialogue between players, coaches and referees after practice works wonders as the end results of the scrimmages are meaningless.
- If you were the King of Water Polo, would you change the current game? If so, what changes would you make and why?
I don’t like the 5 meter rule as it has created stagnation in the game. We see players stay in one place and position to shoot. Some countries are dealing with the problem by not allowing the young divisions to use the “shot” (Hungary and Italy are examples). I also think that the shot clock should return to 35 to create more tactical approach versus depending on individual solutions. I am old fashioned and discussion about number of players, ball size, pool size, etc… are great for controversial arguments but it won’t work. The most successful sports like Soccer, basketball, baseball and volleyball have not made these types of controversial changes, instead they work on making more exciting changes; a game that’s more fluid and offensive minded.
- Gianni Lonzi…Friend or Foe?
A great Friend, I was always taught that if you want to help, step up and “put your money where your mouth is” Gianni has done that. I have heard a lot of criticism towards him, but no one has stepped up to help.
What Gianni does, he does because he believes it would help the sport, stop stabbing each other and present other avenues to help. Create different ways to do something which forces discussion, increases creativity and solutions, “DICTATORSHIPS DO NOT WORK”
- I have been following your incredible success story in Camogli for the past 3 years and am joined by a lot of other people in asking…Will we ever get you back in the USA to work your magic here?
Thank you for that question. The USA will always be my home. I’ve made life time friends and learned so much while living here. I have coached at every level in this country and have seen so much potential (a word I don’t like). As a serious professional, I would love to tackle some of these problems .
As far as working in the states, I continue to do so. In the last 3 years, I have had 14 American teams come to train in Italy with tremendous success. I have also created “Global Water Polo Services”, Coaches and players come from all around the world to participate in stages with our program. By sharing knowledge, I believe we can grow together. Knowledge should be public and open to discussion. If you narrow anything to a “one way to do it mentality” you will stop creativity and halt all development. I’ve learned as much as I have taught during these exchanges. The USA is a wonderful place to work. For now, I am in Europe, who knows with the right changes and opportunities I could return. In the meantime, I work with Pino Porzio (Coach of the world champion Pro Recco) developing fundamental teachings in how to build young athletes for a successful try at the national level. Sports are life like; you must first walk before you can run. When I was working at Long Beach Wilson, I had the pleasure and honor to work with Klaus Barth. He would take ANY child and make them try their best. This is what we need, people trying their best for the good of the sport.
One of the biggest mistakes we make in the USA is to continue to expect our coaches to be administrators, payroll clerks, website managers, travel agents and salesmen. That is never an expectation in European clubs where coaches are expected to do one thing only-COACH. Perhaps it is time for us to look to that example and ask ourselves if we need to consider a few changes to allow us to take advantage of resources we might be missing with that paradigm. Lets face it...Coach Azevedo has proved himself quite capable of coaching at least ONE player to become one of the best the world has ever known.
As the 2010-11 Professional Euroleague season gets underway, keep a close eye on Ricardo Azevedos youngsters at Rari Nantes Camogli as they enter the new season in Division 1.