Interview with the Referee Mark Koganov

Russ Thompson
Water Polo Planet

Mark KoganovMark Koganov has been involved in water polo since age 7. His list of accomplishments both as a player and a referee are impressive. As a player Mark competed professionally in one of the toughest arenas in the world.  As a referee Mark has done 6 NCAA championships, 2 World Championships. At both Mark earned the gold medal games. He whistled 3 European Championships, 1 gold medal, 1 bronze medal game, the Asian Games - Gold medal game, 1 Final Four in the Euroleague and 5 LEN Super Cup games.  In short, Mark is highly regarded as one of the top neutral referees in the world.  I have watched him referee from a referee’s perspective and he is consistent and unflappable.   

Water Polo Planet is pleased to have the privilege of an interview with Mark.  I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as I did.


1. Some think that referees are deposited here from some a far away planet (and a few wish they would return to that planet.)  Nearly every referee has played polo.  Can you tell us about your playing experience?

I started to play polo when I was very young, 7 years old, and made the junior national team of Azerbaijan, one of the former Soviet republics, at age 16.  There was a ministry of sport in each of 15 Republics of Soviet Union, with its own budget, coaches, doctors and etc. The government paid for the sports – including water polo and you had to make the team in order to play.  The competition was really good, a high level and you had to work very hard to make the team and stay on it.  Later I played for what was the equivalent of the republic national team.  The teams of each Republic could have each produced professional teams of national caliber at a senior level and it was nearly impossible to make the Soviet National Team.  Professional team from all republics played national championship. There were 24 teams all over the country, 12 in division One and 12 in Division Two. The competition was fierce and since the government paid for the sports, each and every kid had an opportunity to play any sport and parents didn't have the burden of paying thousands of dollars for their kids.  

After competing in the USSR,  for 3 years I played as player/coach by contract in Israel before coming to United States in the beginning of 90's.   This was during the time of the breakup of the USSR so when I was done with my contract I came to the United States.  

2. What made you decide to referee and why?  When did you begin?

I love the sport and wanted to get involved again. .  I had nothing to do with polo for about 5 years after coming to USA. There was no internet at the time so my only contact was a quarterly magazine from USAWP.  That was it!  Moving to another country is difficult and it took some time to adjust. I remember meeting Loren Bertocci who was in charge of officials at the time, at my first ever referee's clinic. I passed the test and whistled a few games in women’s season. It was a difficult time for me as it took 3 years to gain a varsity assignment.   Eventually though I whistled a lot of tournaments and ended up at the Eastern Championships.  Refereeing polo was different in those days.  The officials were more experienced, with many officials coming from California to referee here in the East.  It was harder to get assignments and to advance. 

I remember Loren's a written test for referees and the language was so hard for me to understand but eventually I got it.  I remember making a call in a game that Loren evaluated at St. Francis and Loren spoke to me about a call for about 25 minutes in a separate room at St. Francis.  To this day I am still not sure what he meant but I knew he wasn’t happy about the call.

Eventually I ended up as a water polo referee representing European country. It was not easy to find really neutral referees in Europe and only few of them made it up to the top in the world..  Water Polo is a small sport with families playing on the same teams and sometimes on different teams.  All are former comrades from the same countries playing against each other. So, at the most of the cases neutral referee comes from a country that has no team or little or no presence in the competition.

3. Do you have a favorite tournament or event you have whistled?  Tell us about it.

This is probably The Asian Games, because it is a relaxed atmosphere, with friends and not a lot of pressure.  Of course I love refereeing the World and European Champions.  The difference at FINA World\and European Championships is that the amount or pressure on you is incredible.  It is a very stressful event.  The competition level is very high and people are tense.  I love any tournament where I am with my fellow referee friends.

4.  Do have any insights you would like to share regarding the rules, their interpretations or changes that you think could improve the game? What changes have occurred that you feel have not been beneficial?  What changes have been good for the game?

The rules as they are written can create a good game.  It is the interpretations that are incorrect. In regards to local competitions I don't understand why the evaluators don’t have 100% voice in how to instruct, promote or assign officials.  Why should you hire evaluators and then not utilize their evaluations 100%?  Why 40% or 30% weight?  When coaches or other interested parties have a say in the evaluation, promotion and assignment of referees this is absolutely wrong and creates a conflict of interest. 

Regarding the interpretations, there is too much contact and physicality in the game.  If the rule 21.8, to hold, sink or pull back a player was called as written instead of interpreted we would have a better game.  A correction to this game could be to only allow 2 personal fouls and then the player is out.  This could work or perhaps still allow 3 fouls but when 3 fouls occur then a penalty foul, like basketball, for example.

I am not going to name names, but many years ago a powerful coach from Europe decided that his team could win more if the game were more physical and this coach exerted an influence and the game became more physical. 

5.  What do you now know as a referee that would have been difficult or impossible to know as a player or even a coach?  What changes when you put on the whistle?

The view, the perspective. As you know, Russ, the referee is not just watching the ball like many of the coaches and players, but also we watch all other movement in the pool …other movement away from the ball. I think every player age 14 or 16 should learn to referee and put on a whistle. It will make them better players.  

6. What else could make for a better game?

There is not enough communications between coaches and referees. Why are there so few coaches in annual (referees) conference call?  They all want to talk about calls on the deck minutes after the game or during the game but later when it requires commitment and time they are nowhere to be found except maybe 1-2 coaches who attend.  Coaches and Referees need to communicate with each other a lot more when there is time and opportunity to create real understanding.   Many times the coaches think the referees are not professional because they don’t spend as much time in the pool as the coaches.  But some of us whistle more than 200 games per year and fly 12 hours one way for one game.  Referees are professional and dedicated to this sport.  There is no money in being a referee and no real job.  It is purely for the love of the sport that referees put on a whistle.  Coaches need to respect that.

Mark Koganov