There has been a plentfull of water polo action in the European swimming pools this year, and it isn’t over yet. With numerous friendly tournaments for all age groups we saw also some huge scale international competitions like the World League Final 8 in Nis (Serbia) and the World Cup in Oradea (Romania), but so far are the European teams concerned, the most important and prestigious competition is yet to come – the European Championship in Zagreb (Croatia) in September. That will be the crown of this year’s tight schedule and the final test for the teams which are together for over two months.
If we take a glance at the competitions that are already finished the first impression that we get is that the Serbian team has kept its winning title streak which started with the World Championship Gold in Rome last year, to which so far they added the title in this year’s World League and in the World Cup also. At the start of the preparation period Dejan Udovicic, the Serbian coach said, that his team’s duty as World Champions is to always play on the top level and that they will not calculate in any of the competitions they play. What was said was done. Firstly, in Nis a city in Serbia which hosted the final tournament of the World League for the first time, Serbs had also the pressure of playing at home, and they had to give their best at the very beginning of the preparation period. This competition held in the start of July showed some interesting matches between well known adversaries which culminated in one of the best final games this competition ever seen. There were 8 participants: Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Australia, USA, Spain, China and South Africa.
What did we see on this tournament? Firstly, we saw a good organization with packed crowd of 2-3 000 people on almost every night match, which is a positive momentum even regarding the fact that it was the reigning World Champions who played their games. This was one of the reasons why the national federation decided to give the organization to this city in hope of achieving bigger interest outside from the usual centers, where there is a bigger competition with other events. Job fulfilled. Another thing which I strongly find positive is the way the games were covered in the TV media.
It is too bad that most of the games that are played in such competitions can be only seen on the local TV stations, and that not even the regional TV channels in other countries are not too interested in broadcasting these games. This year, the Serbian federation signed a contract deal with the Serbia’s leading pay per view sport channel for the coverage of all of its games and competition. They promised that they will add a new dimension in water polo coverage, and my opinion is that they did. This might be just a subjective point of view, and I do consider the fact, that I am not aware of the way how sport channels in other countries follow up water polo events. In fact they didn’t add nothing special to the coverage of the game itself (standard camera angles, two commentators, sometimes where each commentator represents one country – like one from Serbia and the other one from Montenegro…), but what I feel that where they really made the difference was the pre and post game coverage. We could finally see the game analysis with some relevant guests, like players, coaches, even LEN representatives such as Gianni Lonzi etc, at the open studion right next to the pool area. I always felt that that was something that was missing to the water polo events, especially when we talk about the media. It’s not just simply to show the game on the TV and that’s it. We have to face the fact that we are living in an era where we need to fight for attention, especially in the sport, where there is a constantly increasing competition. When we just see with how many analysis of the plays, games, players, interviews etc we are bombarded by the media concerning football, soccer, basketball and other major sports, it is not a coincidence that we know who the big names are, what’s going in their lives, who’s transferring where, who did what and so on, and we are willingly or not interested or aware of this sport. Our sport is a small one, but I warmly support any way of trying to promote it.
Looking at the sport side, we can say that the biggest disappointment of the tournament was Spain, the reigning silver medalist from the last year’s WC, but it was evident that they were in the basic part of their preparation and that are yet to pick up the form for the later competitions. They finished sixth in this competition, but they were shortly back to saddle winning the third place in the World Cup. Two teams who finished last China and South Africa left relatively expected impressions. China guys tried to put up the fight with the big names but they just didn’t had the quality to make a surprise, but it was evident they are working and improving every day. It would be nice to see water polo catching up in such a huge and fast growing country, if for nothing else, that for the global popularity and a rise in the number of players. It was evident that South Africa was there just to fulfill the world’s quota and that honestly don’t have the quality in the level of this competition. But there are some facts that are to notice. Definitively the guys playing for the SA are not pros, but it’s not a greatest picture for the polo to see the players who don’t have a morning practice like all other teams, but instead take sun tan and sit on the bank of the pool chilling out. They were also spotted enjoying in some nightlife during the tight schedule of the competition (which was actually 6 games in 6 days!!). USA team could have done better, they had some good moments, as well as some downturns, winning Spain, and narrowly loosing to Montenegro after penalties, but they just got the worst of the play offs cause they stumbled to Croatia, who although not in its best appearance managed by the individual quality to overcome the willing Americans. USA team had a little bit different situation n the FINA Cup in Oradea, where they lost two games in the group stage, but managed to get to the semifinals, thanks to the draw, where they played against the host Romania in the quarters and won by 14-12. Croatian team, which at the start of the preparation period clearly stated that their main goal is the gold in Zagreb, are clearly improving their form from competition to competition. They finished third in Nis, second in Oradea, and now it’s to see what will happen on their own ground.
The extremely quality team of Montenegro participated in the WL Final 8 but not in the FINA Cup. But what they did show in Nis was a proof that they are sure to be one of the most serious contestants for the European title, which they are defending (won the previous one in Malaga 2008). We shouldn’t forget that Montenegro team will be even more strong when the ancient Serbian Goalkeeper Denis Sefik position himself on the goal. His Debut will be on this year’s EC. This power team was one of the participants in one of the best finals recently seen in the national competitions. It was an epic clash between Serbia and Montenegro. It was a spectacle which most of the spectators waited for in the first place, and which every predicted at the beginning of the tournament. Packed crowd, some of the fans from Montenegro even came by chartered planes, $100,000 of prize money to win, two top teams and a neighboring rivalry…what else do you need for a perfect clash. And the game showed up to be a clash o the titans too. Great duels, goals, saves, counterattacks, changes of the score…and at the end the penalties had to decide the winner. Once again the Serbs were strong mentally and like in Rome they managed to won another tight final after the shootout.
Serbian team won yet another title which was followed by another in the FINa Cup. Although they suffered their first defeat of the season at the start of the competition 11-9 by Croatia, in the final game with the same opponent they secured a routine victory of 13-7. Who knows maybe we’ll be seeing a rerun of these final clashes in the European Championship this September.
Although they look extremely convincing, the Serbian players and their coach Udovicic, try to stay firm on the ground. Udovicic also stated that he always believed that this generation could leave a deep mark in the water polo history. Only a stupid man thinks of himself as invinsible. We must stay in the ground and approach every new challenge the same way. What makes me mad is the referee criteria sometimes and its changes from game to game and even during the game. Although this team is young we have a capacity to adapt to these changes and criteria. I understand that referees are people like everybody else, but I have an impression that they look at the scoreboard too much, which it seems they don’t see in the same way as we do. It depends too much on the refs calls. Sometimes it looks like they’re not coming from the same organization. It used to look like if they’re trying to make the game only to men up/down. All it took was for a player to look at the referee to get the exclusion of the defensive player. That completely neglects the individual quality of the players, especially in the defense. They say that it would be completely insane to think of themselves as the best only by these results, because everyone’s final goal are the medals in Zagreb. Croatia is the host and they will be supported by a loud crowd, Montenegro has an extremely quality team, eager to take a title. Spanish want to get to another podium once again, and there are of course the Hungarians. Who could forget about them…Like previous years, this team has a special program on how they prepare for the big competitions. They don’t play WL, only some tournaments, usually organized in their home land, and they always cower their cards until the very beginning of the competition. It will be very interesting to see how much can this renewed and younger Hungarian team achieve in the EC. With an old 3 times Olympic champion coach Denes Kemeny who will be assisted by ancient team captain Tibor Benedek, new faces will try to shine as their predecessors did. Will they succeed? We’ll see soon
[Click the photo of Srdjan to learn more about his water polo experiences .]