The Man Inside
Srdjan Miljanic, BA, MS


Strike Mode

Problems in water polo are not a new thing. We are constantly aware that new issues arise, from cutting down university budgets, poor media coverage, falling number of spectators, lack of interest from youngsters to pursue their careers in the pool, non-existence of professional leagues in most countries around the world… The inspiration for this month’s column came from a rising number of player and official’s strikes which are taking place all around Europe in the past months.

02Player strikes are not new, there were suspension of trainings and before, but nowadays they are expressed more then ever. The financial situation in professional clubs is really bad. Everybody knows that water polo is highly dependent on local community funding, and that is one of the reasons why most of the clubs are situated in relatively small cities, or in the suburbs of great metropolitan areas. The crisis which is lasting now for more than 3 years is effecting the situation in this sport. Community budgets are downsized and so is the financing of the local sports clubs, and water polo clubs are one of those which are hit the most. Few are the ones which have the possibility to rely on sponsorships deals and commercial incomes. In the world where some other sports once considered to be marginal and not so popular are knocking on the Olympics door, and are taking over the prime time media coverage, the people who are running the polo need to think of the ways to upgrade this sport in order to  stay competitive. This topic might be stated over and over again, but the question is so important, that the steps for resolving it are necessary to be made as soon as possible. 01From rule changes to visual commercialization, water polo must become a sport that distinguish itself from all other sports. It is in fact a unique sport – it is played in the water, and this unique setting should be used as an advantage. Everybody loves water, it resembles them to summer, holidays, fun and pleasure. Water polo should try to use this image and to enrich the pool experience. Firstly it is needed that more people are aware that this sport even exists. Ok, probably everybody heard sometimes that there is a game called water polo, played by some guys in the pool with the ball. But a majority of the people don’t actually know the game, or even worst, it’s hard for them to understand it. My opinion is that a worldwide campaign of popularization of  water polo needs to be engaged, so that more people get in touch with the balls, with the dynamic of the game, and the passion.

But these are some general issues, and what I wanted to write about is something that is more close to everyday problems. A situation when a player refuses to play because his salary are not on time, or even a when whole team refuses to play is more/less usual, but when a complete league stops, then that is a definite sign that the problematic is high. This is the case with the water polo in France. Ok, France as a country does not represent a power house in world water polo, but it is a big, developed country which has intention to upgrade both in men and women water polo. There is a reasonable number of clubs and players which are fans of this sport, and destruction of our sport in this region could lead to more serious problems all around Europe.  But what is generally the problem over there?

03A few months ago,  French Federation modified its  repayment scheme for the referee’s travel expenses, which automatically affected the referees, and it has become somewhat unsupportable for the officials to travel long distances.. What is even worse, is that the Federation never really realized the program for referee education, and the referee organization found themselves in a situation to send poorly experienced refs to whistle high level games or hard matches. The fees went so low, that in some lower division matches, the games were whistled by only one ref or even by a coach!!

04Not satisfied with the current situation, the referees decided to organize a strike. In fact the French Federation never organized anything for the development of the French water polo. No education for coaches, no education for referees and no concrete strategies and long term plans for this sport in general for the French soil. Probably the main problem is that in France, there is no real Water Polo Federation. Water Polo section is just one part of the swimming association, which is very developed over there. This fact is certainly a big issue, for the development of water polo sport . It is well known that in the areas (where swimmers and polo players use the same facilities, are in the same club or etc..) where the swimming is high profiled, the water polo is usually poor. Unfortunately, it is really difficult to sustain two similar sport disciplines in one community, which sadly represents competition to each other. But to return to our story, the big French club joined together and formed "l'Association des Clubs de Water polo Français" which has for a goal to improve the communication between the Federation and the clubs.

And on the end, the clubs decided to join the referees in the strike and all of the matches which were supposed to be played in the first and second division were delayed, until the federation and the clubs find the constructive solution for the development of water polo. Many people who participate in this strike long for the creation of the water polo Federation. But just to show you how the things are moving « fast » over there – the strike started almost a month ago, and the first reunion between two parties  is scheduled for the 25th of February !! Until then, the water polo in France is on a standstill. For me this is scandalous, and definitively a great waste of time for the players, clubs and water polo in general.

It will be interesting to see how the things develop, and you will definitively be informed about the outcome.

The French example is a very drastic one in what is happening in the European water polo in this moment. There are no league interruptions in this moment, but in the past few season, we were witnesses of a large number of team strikes, mainly because of the financial problems in the clubs. I will just try to quickly evoke some of the most known situations.  

05Olympiakos – the famous Greek champion is currently going through a very tough period. At the beginning of the year the players decided to step into a strike because the club was owing players several monthly remunerations. According to some  sources they  haven’t  received anything for almost a year!! After the derby match against their archrival Panataneikos, Greek players decided not to go to the trainings nor to the games until the solutions are found for their debts. This was only few days before the Euroleague match with Partizan Belgrade, and even this match was in jeopardy. Finally this match was played, but in avery peculiar atmosphere. There were only 8 Olympiakos players !!(there was only one substitute – which was in fact injured, but he was there just to fulfill the numbers). The match itself ended 7-1 in favor for Partizan, but we can only appreciate the effort that Greek players made to even come and play the game in such circumstances. Up to today, the situation in Greek giant is still unknown.

07VK Sibenik – This water polo club from Croatia, faced a similar situation as Olympiakos at the beginning of 2010. After month without incomes, the players decided to stop the trainings in the middle of the season and refused to play or train until the solution arises. 06This was at the moment the third strongest team in Croatian championship, one of the favorites to win the LEN cup, and a team with lots of young but also talented and perspective players. Due to the financial situation, they stepped out of the European competition, for which they were punished by the LEN. This situation lasted until the end of the season, and some of the games were actually played by juniors or even cadets. There were no more group/team trainings, some of the players were coming to train for themselves, some didn’t come at all… The players organized numerous press conferences, but there was nobody interested in taking over the club. The saddest thing was that some of the players were even rethinking whether to continue with their careers…

09Primorac – the reining European vice champion, and Euroleague winner two years ago, Montenegrin Primorac, is again in deep problems. If we remember that, in 2009, they traveled by taxi vans to the Final Four of the Euroleague, the agony in the club from Kotor continues. High ambitions combined with a large number of highly 09contracted players are constantly pressuring the management of the club to provide huge sums of money for the salaries. Kotor players have been on strike in several occasions in the previous two seasons. Once again at the beginning of the year – the same problem, month and months without remunerations. Although the sporting motives are very high, playing in the great team and chasing all national and international titles, we should remember that these guys to this as professional, and this is what they live of.  The players refused to come and train, some of the matches were postponed, some played with second team, but in general the problematic is still actual. And from  who do they seek help and additional financing? From the city and the community, which brings us back to the beginning of our story, on how the water polo clubs are dependent on the strength of the local communities, and how desperate new measures for improvement of the attractiveness of the game are needed.

But there are even more dramatic stories, which led to shutting down of the clubs, and their disappearance from the water polo scene.

10VK Becej – The 2000 Euroleague champion,  and 7 times Yugoslavian champion, disappeared over the night, when the public financing stopped in since 2001. This once mighty team and club, after the 2000 Euro title, and political changes in the country, stopped playing their star players, but also other duties such as facility maintenance and etc… Soon the club was so in debt that there was no exit but to put a lock on it and to announce bankruptcy. They left many players with unpaid remunerations, which counted even for several hundreds of thousand euros. Many of those debts were never paid off. After few season the new club opened in the same city, but with a new management and name, cleared of debts, but with a rather humble budget and aspirations.

11Alcorcorn – The club from the Madrid suburb, which had some good season in the past few years, managed to create a team which was 5th in the Spanish Division de Honor, and which secured its place in the LEN cup competition. Once again, dependent on the local community financing, the club filed to pay its players, and in the 2009/10 season, the majority of the players received only 2 monthly salaries for a complete year! Players formed a sort of a union, they wrote to the authorities, tried to make payment arrangements with the club, but nothing helped for more than a year. Result? The club went from one of the strongest, to the third division, and is now playing with junior team with small prospect of upgrading in the near future…

These are sad stories, which are not isolated and I can assure you that there are many more of similar ones in the professional water polo nowadays. Interestingly, you now can almost certainly predict, that if you go to some country or club you are probable to stay short of several monthly remunerations, and that it is very hard to fight for your rights. For example the countries which are noted as potentially “dangerous” for the whole contract recovery are Greece (where there are problems in almost every club, every year), Italy (besides some top clubs, it is sadly, usual that players leave with debts, and especially the foreign players who transfer to other club in the following year), Montenegro (with high salaries, there is a high possibility of late payments).  Other countries, usually with not such big contracts (like Spain, France, etc..) were considered to be safe concerning contract  fulfillment, are also facing problems and all clubs are in difficult situation.

12But what to say about the situation with which for example Serbian federation and players are facing. World champions and numerous other medal holders are continuously trying to get the support they deserve from the state, media and other relevant institutions and companies, but with low results. There are no new pools, new clubs, and besides the system of trainings and play which is developed and nurtured the support is pool. On the other hand, Croatia used well its Euro title to raise popularity. They have several new pools, three top teams which are playing in the quarter finals of the Euroleague (Mladost, Jug and Primorje), and some of the top international players are training over there.

The complete water polo community should be engaged in the popularization of our beloved sport which is in peril of becoming totally marginal, and a sport which is played only in recreational and promotional purposes. Let’s do something about that people!

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