And the Title Goes...
That’s it. Another club season in Europe is behind us, the titles, crowns, prizes are given, and what rest is to make a meaningful resume of the events in the past two months.
The most interesting event of the water polo season, was undoubtedly the Euroleague Final Four held in Rome on the first weekend in June. It seems that the eternal city is becoming a pretty lucky place for the Serbs, because once again, the title goes to Belgrade, and once again the underdogs defeated the reigning champions and positioned themselves on the throne. As you might remember, the Serbian national team won the golden medal at WC in Rome in 2009, although they rejuvenated the team after the 2008 Olympics. This time, only in club competition, the Serbian game philosophy and spite, lead Partizan towards their 7th European title. In the historic final game, Partizan demolished the reigning champions, and so called “European water polo dream team” – Pro Recco by 11-7!!
The Serbian team, one of the biggest club names in the history if water polo, waited 35 years for this title. This is their 7th one, and now they are equaled with Mladost from Zagreb, in the number of European titles. Pro Recco will stay, at least until the next year, on 6 titles, and this way the dream of Mr. Volpi (the president of Recco) to claim record 8 European titles until 2012 will stay unfulfilled. Partizan really had a season for the archives. Throughout the season (which they started relatively poorly, by losing at Mladost at the start of the Euroleague), they were raising their form, improving performances in the pool in every game. In the quarterfinal group stage, after 20 years they managed to defeat Jug in Dubrovnik, and those were the first signs, that this might be the year to remember.
If we remember last year, Partizan played excellent water polo throughout the season, they had only one loss in the entire year, and that was the by Recco in the semifinals. This year, they were more cautious, and the team form was in constant uprising until the end of the season. And in the end, a convincing win in the semifinal against Mladost, and a demonstration of power in the final!
Everybody who follows water polo, must be aware that what Milanovic’s guys did in Rome, was an historic success. It is similar to when Primorac, won the surprising title 2 years ago, but the performance itself is just outstanding. When you look at the team that Recco has, it is just so hard to imagine the tactics and the idea on how to stop that machine. But what did prevail in this final game was definitively the team play, and higher motivation of Partizan players. It’s not always the paper favorites that win – that’s the sport.
Since the start it was visible that Serbian players are eager to give 150%, and to leave everything in the pool for the win. When you see that a 38 year old Vladimir Vujasinovic, a man who won dozens of trophies, play like a young man, jumps for every ball, motivates his teammates, jumps on every missed shot, cheers every goal, that you know the atmosphere in the team is on top.
The game itself was a really good one, It was a clash of two prepared teams, well organized, with possibilities to score and defend at any time. But this time, the team spirit overcame the group of fantastic individuals. Honestly I don’t remember that last time Recco scored less than 7 goals in the game. Partizan’s defense was like a fast moving and adaptive wall, there was an aggressive player always where the ball was. But what to say about the offense: men up situations 7 goals out of 7!! It is really rare to see such a perfectly played match by one team, and the title is more than deserved back to Banjica pool.
Igor Milanovic, the coach of this great generation said:”I would really like to keep this generation of first off all great people and then fantastic players in the club for the next season, to try to defend the title. If we manage to do that I am willing to accept the burden of being a favorite. For that we need Vujasinovic to stay with us in the pool. My wish is that he continues his career, so that he can help the upcoming generations with his experience, knowledge and authority.” Vladimir Vujasinovic, one of the best players in the history of the game and the captain claimed:”I can’t explain this feeling to you. For the past three years, I have been “dying” in the pool with these guys so that we could arrive where we are now. Nothing happens by chance, this title is just a peak of a long journey which we passed together. On the paper, Recco is the world’s best team, but you couldn’t tell that at the game. At this moment, Partizan is the best in the world, and I am overwhelmed because of the trophy. It is definitively one of the dearest in my career” .
A curiosity is that Recco has 11 foreign players (out of which only 3 can play in the Italian league, and the rest play only a dozen matches in the Euroleague), and Partizan only one – the Greek veteran Theo Hatzitheodorou. It is interesting to hear that on the beginning of the season, when he signed the contract, Theo said that he came to Belgrade to win the Euroleagu title. Said – done. Also if we were to speak in numbers, this year’s budget for the player’s salaries of Partizan was about 520.000 EUR, which was 8 times less than the Recco’s!! Partizan will have big problems in keeping the team for the next season, because many important players have ended their contracts, and it is possible that higher offers are on the table. Aleksandar Sostar, the director of Partizan, claims that they would be able to maintain the team with additional 300.000 to 400.000 EUR, so you can do the math… The highest contract in Partizan is 90.000EUR per year, and the lowest 10.000EUR. But it is important to say that paychecks are several months late in this club (even the primes from the last year’s Final Four are still not payed) , which sadly became the standard practice in many clubs around Europe. Also the winner of the Euroleague receives a modest 17.000 EUR prize for the first place (this might not even cover the Final Four stay expenses for the team!). The idea which Partizan would like to introduce for the following season, is to make itself as a sort of government and federation project. Since already there are 7 national team players in this team, they wish to secure additional funding from both federation and from the ministry of sports, to gather as much as Serbian national team players back to their squad, and this way support the preparation for 2012 Olympics too. This is something that is being done in Hungary, but that is just a project, it’s too soon to see whether it will come to life…
The rich Pro Recco, suffered a huge blow with this loss, and its players and coach Porzio say that they are not aware why they didn’t match up with the Partizan in the final game. They claim that they were mentally and physically prepared, that the atmosphere is good, but that it was just one of those days, when you do not look like a team you are. It is certain that Volpi’s club will continue with the same strategy of recruiting and paying large amounts of money to the best players of the world. There will be changes in the squad, who will go is yet uncertain, but it is already official that Croatian Sandro Sukno has signed for the next season, and several other top players are rumored to be close to signing. I will leave this topic for some following article, because the transfer season has just begun, and many of the rumors are still unofficial.
But Euroleague Final Four was not the only thing that was happening in the previous period. In every country the end of may meant the final series of the national championships. To start with the Adriatic league, once again the struggling Jadran (struggling because of financial issues, they actually let off all of the players after the end of the season, and next year they will play with a lot younger team), surprised everybody in the Final Four of this league, where it won the second title in the row between three Croatian clubs. Jadran was not so fortunate in the Montenegrin championship, where Budva (also the participant of this year’s Euroleague Final Four) succeeded in claiming the title in the photo finish wining the direct duel against Jadran at home.
Final series if the Croatian championship was played between Jug and Primorje, and in a very interesting series of close games, Jug managed to get three victories first and regain the national championship crown.
In the Hungarian league, Eger became champion for the first time in their history after clashes with Vasas. In Italy Pro Recco even lost one of the final games against Savona, but at the end secured yet another national title.
Barceloneta won the league in Spain, with a 3-0 win in the series against their neighbors and arch rivals Barcelona, while the race in France between Marseille and Montpellier is still under way.The end of this season will be remembered by a national team farewell of the two water polo legends. Tamas Kasas the Hungarian water polo artist (who was by the way pronounced MVP of the Euroleague Final Four – nobody knows why?), decided not to participate in the upcoming national team events. This means that a glorious career of a man who did magic in the water, and two literary won EVERYTHING that could be won in water polo, is coming to an end. Not yet in the club level, but the international spectators won’t be able to watch this legend in the WC’s , WL’s or Olympics no more.
The other player who also retired from the national squad is one of the best centers in the World Igor Hinic. This mountain of a man, and a mountain of a players, said that after a long season in Mladost, he’s body couldn’t keep up the level of training and matches during the summer, and that he will be focusing only on club water polo. Coach Rudic tried to persuade him otherwise, but he stayed firm with his decision. This will also be a significant loss for the international water polo.
Who will be the heirs of these masters of water polo? Are there some new faces that will swim up and dazzle us, water polo fans with their moves and goals? Maybe the answer to that question will come very soon – in Florence and Shanghai…
[Click the photo of Srdjan to learn more about his water polo experiences .]