The Man Inside
Srdjan Miljanic, BA, MS

   

Summer Warm-up for the World Championship

We can definitively say that this is the summer of water polo in Europe. Not only that all of this year’s big competitions are being held across Europe, but all of the participating teams decided to make their presence and preparations there. The busy and interesting summer is all just a warm-up for the cherry on the top of the cake – World Championship in Rome.

1Every team has its on goals and expectations and is doing their best to prepare for the big scene. This World Championship will be very interesting because it comes a year after the Olympic Games, and it is certain that we will see some significant changes in the squads, as well as some surprising results.  

As I already mentioned before, there have been several important competitions in the past month throughout Europe. First of all there was the final tournament of the World League in Podgorica at the end of June.

2Once again the home team of Montenegro how strong and dominant they are in this moment in world water polo. Regarding the fact that Hungary decided not to participate in this year’s World League, the Montenegrin sharks showed dynamic and powerful water polo, and secured yet another gold medal and title, defeating the raining world champions Croatia in the final 9-8. Montenegro was the host of this year’s final tournament which was held at the newly built pool complex in their capital in a record time, and which was opened for public just few days before the start of the tournament. This complex is now officially the fourth covered swimming pool in the country of European Champions!! Few in quantity but high in quality, that’s for sure.

3The games played showed a great deal of competitiveness but it was visible that all the teams were still in the preparation period, and they still had a lot of space for improvement of their games and getting rid of the usual mistakes for this time of preparation period. At the end Montenegro took the first place and 100.000 dollars, beating Croatia 9-8. The Montenegrin’s were dominant and in lead all throughout the game, and only with few late goals, the Croats managed to make the match more interesting in the finish. The bronze medal went to the Serbs who were victorious against USA 9-7 (that was their second match in 4 days, as they already played in the group stage where Serbia won also by 10-7). Not like in the first game, when Serbia collected an easy win, the second game was dominated by the USA team. USA led the whole game, and it was only 1, 34 seconds before the end of the game when Serbia got the advantage and managed to keep it till the end of the game.

 This is an interesting curiosity because a few weeks before this final 8 tournament, these two teams trained together in the States and played three friendly games and west coast Universities (two draws 8-8, 11-11, and a victory for Serbia 11-8). It was a continuous cooperation between two federations, but with a lot of competitiveness in the pool. Serbs still can’t forget and excuse themselves for the surprise 10-5 defeat at the Olympic semis in Beijing 2008. Serbian players even pointed out that that game and USA victory will be in their mind for a long time and it will continue to be an additional motive for future games. As the Serbia coach Dejan Udovicic said after these three games – that there is no more friendly matches, because when these two competitive teams play, every games is a new story and a place to spot something and learn from the mistakes as well.

There were two more interesting competitions held in Europe before the World Championship in Rome – the Mediterranean Games in Pescara, Italy and the World University Games in Belgrade, Serbia.

The Mediterranean Games are a multi-sport games held every 4 years, mainly for nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea, where Europe, Africa and Asia meet. 4 The first 10 games, starting from 1951 took place always one year preceding the Olympic Games. However, from 1993 on, they were held the year following the Olympics. At present, 23 countries participate in the games. From Africa: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia. From Asia: Lebanon and Syria. And from Europe: Albania, Andorra, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, France, San Marino, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Cyprus and Turkey.  The only country bordering the Mediterranean Sea which doesn’t participate is Israel, and only countries not bordering the Mediterranean Sea which nonetheless participate are Andorra, San Marino and Serbia. The 2009 Med Games, officially known as the XVI Mediterranean Games took place in Pescara, Italy, from 25th June to 5th July 2009. Athletes from 23 countries competed in 28 sports, where on of the most interesting competitions was the water polo tournament.

This year’s participants were the teams of Croatia, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro, France and the host Italy. Most of these teams will participate in the World Championship, and they came to this competition in their finest squads, as they saw it as a perfect opportunity to train and play hard matches. Only Montenegro came with the second team, deciding to focus on trainings after a successful campaign in the World League. Knowing that the teams are still in their training stages we saw some interesting results like the French victory over Greece (10-7), and an extremely high victory of Serbia against Croatia 14-8 in the semi final game. 5This was the first win for Serbia against Croatia since July 2006. But the result is only a matter of current inspiration of Serbian players, and not the real difference between the teams. We can surely expect some highly interesting and tough matches in the future. In her first ever competition and first final of the Med Game, Serbia showed the quality and completely deserved the gold medal. The final opponent was the bronze medallist from the previous World Championship in Melbourne – Spain, the result: 9-4. Udovicic’s boys came out victorious easily over Spain leading by four goals at the halftime and only worked to keep that from then on. The bronze medal between Italy and Croatia brought an epic end to the game when 21 seconds before the end, the games was a draw and the Croatian team got the penalty, which they missed, and in the counter attack they lost to a penalty! At the end of the match, at 9-9, Italian player Giorgietti’s foul resulted in a penalty for the Croats. The same player Giorgietti stayed next to one of the best shooters of the world Boskovic, who already scored a penalty on the match. He would have shot confidently this time as well, but the ball under his palm didn’t rise, because Giorgetti, who was still close by, pushed it with his left hand…The referee’s whistle remained silent, the Italians did a fast break and right after a pass served right in front of Giorgetti, they got to shoot the next penalty. Gallo scored it (his 5th goal). Ratko Rudic after furious reactions called a timeout, but there were only 6 seconds left, and the final attack didn’t bring anything. This is how Italy got the bronze…

Another interesting competition was held this summer also in Europe – the 25th World University Games. Universiade is besides Olympics the biggest sport event held in a country. The 25th summer Universiade was held in the Serbian capital – Belgrade between July 1st and July 12th of this year. 6 Some 9000 athletes-students from 140 countries competed in 15 sports and 208 disciplines. Apart from the importance of competition, the mission of the Universiade as an international institution is to spread values that are the core of academic sports. Water polo definitively has a big importance and role in promoting these values, as for years the polo players have been considered as sportsmen with one of the best academic performances. This year’s games hosted 16 and 8 women teams, with players born between 1981 and 1991. Top favorites for the title before the games were the Australians (with an experienced team consisting of 5 players from the A team who already played in the Beijing Olympics), Serbia as a hosting nation, Hungary, Croatia and Russia who came with A team. After a great tournament and exciting matches where spectators saw a lot of young and talented players who represent the future of world water polo, the teams that showed the most were Australia, Croatia, Serbia and Greece, teams that managed to get to the semifinals. In the gold medal match the strong and physically dominant Aussies were victorious against Croatia 6-4. It was the first time that an Australian men’s team had stood on a top of the podium, ranking better than a FINA World Cup bronze, two FINA World League bronze medals and a junior men’s silver medal. 7The Aussie players, many of them whom will play in the next FINA World Championship in Rome, had to come from two goals down in the first quarter to keep their winning streak, as they were the only unbeaten team throughout the entire competition. The bronze medal was taken by Serbia, who didn’t manage to overcome Australia in front of a packed stands in the semis (7-6 for Australia), but they defeated Greece (11-8) and continued the medal winning tradition from big junior competitions. Greece represents maybe the biggest surprise of the tournament, because they didn’t come with the highest ambitions, but how the competition developed they were improving their game, and managed to beat one of the hottest favorites – Hungary (8-7) in the quarterfinals. The fifth place was taken by the disappointed Hungarians, who nonetheless found the motivation to win against the solid USA team. Russia, who we can call the biggest disappointment of the tournament took the 7 place beating Italy. Russian team with the top national team, which they try to rebuild and create a team descent enough to represent the country with glorious water polo history, but even in a concurrence with junior squads of most of the teams, they weren’t able to show much.

As for the women’s tournament the new university champion is, what could be a surprise for many – China! The Chinese girls won the final game in Banjica swimming pool against the national team of Hungary 12-8. The bronze medal went to Russia who beat Canada 10-8.

As most of the participants claimed, they were satisfied with the tournament, because this was one of the filters for evaluation of young players who will be interesting for future A selections.  An interesting fact about the Serbian coach staff. The former Serbian national player, recorder for his appearances for the national team, and one legends of this sport- Dejan Savic, was the assistant coach to head coach Dejan Stanojevic. Still being an active player for Russian Sintez Kazan, Dejan accepted to be a member of national team, and was extremely appreciated by the players for his counsels and suggestions. Another interesting statistical data. In the final ranking of best scorers of the tournament, there in only one player in the first ten (Marin BAN from Croatia who shares 6th place with four other players scoring 13 goals) from the best 4 teams in the tournament. This could seem funny, but regarding this fact, we can conclude that this competition brought un the qualities of teamwork and homogeneity of the group.

Beside these official competitions, different tournaments and preparations are being conducted by the teams in order to prepare for the World Championship. Here is an overview how some of the biggest favorites are preparing for Rome…

Montenegro

8After great results in the previous year, Montenegro team is considered maybe as a first favorite for winning the gold medal in these years World Championship. They’ve already won the title at their own pool, in Podgorica, in World League, and they are anxious to confirm the last years European gold with a world crown. This team, led by the head coach Petar Porobic and captain Nikola Janovic look cautiously on the following tournament and they say that the past results won’t fool them into flying high and taking the opponents easily. Unlike some other teams Montenegro decided to prepare through tough trainings in the mountains and in the pool for the following competition. They played several training matches with the Hungarians and Australians. On the 13th of July in the occasion of  the anniversary of their first ever European title, they played a match with the Olympic vice champion USA where they won 12-9 and the last check will be the match against Spain just before the start of the tournament. They will play with the same team that won all the other titles, and we can really expect some great games from them

Hungary

9The triple Olympic champion is preparing seriously for another tournament. But after one Olympic cycle, come water polo legends like Kasas, Benedek and Molnar retired from the national team. This opens a place for new stars, and as legendary coach Denes KEMENY says, nobody will be in the squad just to strengthen the team for one competition, but only the guys who are prosperous to play in 2012 Olympics. Regarding that fact, there is an interesting story about the centre Adam Steinmetz (this year’s Euroleagu champion with Kotor). This great center won’t be joining the squad because his medical condition doesn’t give him many chances for playing in London 2012 (recently he had a serious surgery on the neck and he still doesn’t know how long he will be able to play professionally). This could seem like a drastic measure but it only shows hoe serious is planning and work in the Hungarian federation.

Hungary decided not to participate in any of the official competitions, such as World League, as they made a training scheme of their own. Before the start of the World Championship they organized a strong tournament (the Unicum Cup in Budapest) where they played with Serbia, Australia, and Germany, and with several trainings with the Montenegrins, we will have to wait for the start of the games in Rome to see the real strength of this new team. One of the possible threats for Hungary could be the absence of a steadily good performance of the goal keepers in the club matches in the whole season. They hope that they will improve their performance for the World Championship, during the preparations. Anyway, what we can expect from this team is a traditional Hungarian offensive play, with lot of swimming and counterattacks, as well as a lot of movement in the position play, since they will be playing with only one center. That is something that all the opponents will have to take special care about and make special effort to stop the offensive actions with double centers that enter from the wing.

Serbia

10Completely renewed Serbian squad suffered the biggest changes in their team in comparison to other favorites (7 players who were in the Olympic squad retired from the national team). The new team, which is the base for the next Olympics, will definitely still be one of the favorites for the medals, but it is still vague to really estimate their strength in the moment. The Serbian coach Dejan UDOVICIC decided to improve tactics and physique by playing as much as games possible. They started with a two week preparation in the United States where they played three tough matches with the USA team (two draws and a win). After, they participated in the World League final tournament where they took the bronze medal (once again playing 2 times against USA team). The senior team then took part in the Mediterranean Games, finishing on the first place with  dominant performance and for the end they played the Unicum Cup in Hungary, where they also won the first place in a tough competition with Hungary, Australia and Germany. Is this only the early peek of the team performance or the Serbian youngsters really found the winning play is yet to be seen. Definitely there won’t be any easy games in Rome, and we will see some great matches where the experience could be decisive for the final income.

Croatia

11The reining world champions Croatia haven’t changed their team a lot in comparison to the last years. On the past competitions they didn’t have the results that they expected, but they definitively represent a very strong, experienced team, capable of reaching the top of the world water polo. Like Serbia, they decided to play all the official competitions (World League, Mediterranean Games) where they won a silver medal in Podgorica and finished fourth in Pescara. Regarding the quality of the players and the sport’s tradition the public expectations are high, but also is the pressure. There are rumor’s that in the case of a bad result (and the only success is the winning of the gold medal) this could be the last year for Ratko RUDIC as the head coach.

Some of the favorites from the shadow, who shouldn’t be forgotten are the USA (Olympic silver medallist), Spain (a young and improving team capable of surprising everybody) and Australia (in the case they maintain the level of physique play and rhythm, they are considered to be a very dangerous opponent).

Anyhow, this will be a really hot Italian summer and probably the biggest heat will be happening in the water…

[Click the photo of Srdjan to learn more about his water polo experiences .]