New European Water Polo Tides...
It’s been a while since I wrote something about what’s going on in the European water polo pools. Well it-s time to get it started again…
The biggest sporting event of the 2012, the Olympic Games is over. I believe that everybody who reads this knows the results, the champions, the losers, surprises and disappointments which occurred during this tournament. Just a quick overview…
Croatia, is the new Olympic champion – completely deserved. They showed a constant high level form throughout the tournament, which actually improved from game to game. Extremely talented, powerful and motivated team, lead from the bench by a legendary Ratko Rudic, displayed how a modern water polo winning team should look like. Dominance in the defense with the tournament MVP, goalkeeper Josip Pavic, created numerous opportunities for counter attack goals, but their field offensive and defensive game was o the highest level throughout the entire tournament.
Italy, has definitively a generation of players which is perhaps capable of repeating some of the greatest result of Setebello from the history. Although not classified as one of the top three favorites for the final, Campagna’s boys rose to the occasion once again. After World Championship Title, silver in Euro Champs in Zagreb, this Olympic silver gives a huge boost not only to the players, but also to the entire Italian water polo community. It was clearly visible that everybody from the “boot shaped peninsula” was thrilled with this result, and gave huge credits to everything that these players and their coaching staff did in the previous years. We can unarguably say that the Allesandro Campagna did a great job since he took over the national team. He created a disciplined, aggressive, competitive and pertinent squad, balancing experienced players with young stars. Now their confidence is huge, and they don’t fear anybody. With all the turbulence which was present in Italian water polo federation (which we will mention after), this result gives a leading light for all the future actions – and especially regarding the fact that in recent junior WC in Australia, Italia won the gold medal – this is the team to watch for in the years to come, and it’s certain that more medals and podiums are there for grabs!
Serbia, the most constant medalist among the world teams in the last decade, once again did not succeed in taking the long awaited Olympic Gold. The dream of winning the Olympic crown still remains the dream for most of the Serbian players, but the reality is that almost all of the players which played for this national team in London are more than likely to be in contest for the place in the team for Rio 2016, which is not the case with many teams we saw (they were the youngest team at the Games). This time, despite the solid performances and great wish, Italy was better once again in the decisive game (we can remember that Italy beat Serbia in the World Championship final, 2 years ago, although Serbia was the favorite). It seems that Italian’s have a way with Serbia in the tight matches; they manage to introduce their game rhythm, to cover the biggest threats and to endure the pressure when needed. Despite the lost in the semis, Serbia managed to obtain the bronze in a thriller match against Montenegro, overcoming 3 goals deficiency in the last quarter, and showing all the mental strength and a winning “it’s not over until the final whistle” attitude, which actually brought them so many titles in the past after all.
Montenegro, such a group of extremely talented players, maybe the best regarding their names, didn’t get the medal this time, and this was probably the last chance for many of the fantastic players, since they announced retirement from the national squad. We won’t be seeing passes, shots and lucid moves from Vladimir Gojkovic, Nikola Janovic and probably Boris Zlokovic on the international scene. This is the team considered to be the biggest underachiever of the games. They showed some spectacular water polo in the last years and on the Olympics too, but compared to what they have in their “guns”, the harvest of the medals, is relatively slim. This is a country with great water polo tradition and love towards the game, and we are certain to see many good results and players in the future.
Speaking of the other teams which participated in the tournament I believe than we can divide them into two groups.
First, were we can put the teams which generally do put up a good fight (like Australia, Germany, Romania), sometimes even surprise some of the favorites and squeeze a win or a draw, but never do finish in the battle for the medal. Don’t get me wrong, it is great to have these teams and water polo developing in these countries, but we are still yet to see some extraordinary players and results from them.
The second group – well I would call them the “elderly favorites”. This saying I am talking about USA, Hungary and Spain, clearly three teams with great international reputation and list of medals won in the past. But what was evident at these Games, is the lack of will to refresh the roosters with new, younger players. Maybe it was a bad judgment by the coaches, maybe they taught that they could still pull some of the good results with the over experienced players, which had their zenith 4 years ago, but miraculously even after retirement ended up in the Olympic roosters of their national teams. This time, it was evident, that the players of USA and Hungary, Beijing finalist, just didn’t have the power to keep up the rhythm and pace with other teams until the end of the tournament. They started superbly, but how the matches cumulated, so did their strength fade. My belief is that changes in these teams should have come earlier, introducing gradually new players, and not to let a creation of such a gap between the generations…
And so, the Olympic Games have finished, and it was time to go back home, and to prepare for the start of the season in the national and European competitions. In general, if we take a look at the last season, there was a sour taste in the way how the Champions League finished. Nothing to say to the winner Pro Recco and its final 4 adversaries; but the general feeling of the poor, uninteresting organization of the final tournament prevailed all the good sporting aspects.
Video Final Four Oradea 2012
A group of biggest and richest European clubs, led by Pro Recco, Primorje and their presidents Volpi and Sloboda, entered into serious negotiations and gathered a group of 14 top European clubs around the idea of creating a Superleague – kind of a closed league with best clubs as participants, and a completely renewed marketing, promotional and benefits strategy. This was considered as one of the best ideas in the professional water polo community since the existing system was getting more and more saturated and just losing interest of spectators and sponsors. Teams were supposed to play this league, and then after rejoin their national leagues in the playoffs. It was believed that everything was arranged, some of the contracts were signed, but then LEN stepped out. Feeling that this league would further weaken their position as the sovereign ruler of the European water polo, who knows best how the steer the future of the game, they simple announced that they do not accept the creation of this league, and kind a blackmailed the potential participant, that if they join they are out the of LEN, and all of its international competitions (both for teams and national teams!). At first clubs seemed determined to carry on with the idea, but apparently the pressure from LEN paid out, and firstly Hungarian, and then Serbian clubs stepped out, and slowly the whole concept was ruined. LEN did propose some of the changes competition wise, but with no real idea on how to attract sponsors, a lot of clubs faced with the crisis aftermath decided not to play in the European competitions this year. A brutal example – none of the four teams which participated in the last year’s final 4 in Oradea – Pro Recco, Primorje, Vasas and Mladost, are not playing the strongest European competition at all!! But they are not the only ones who backed – none of the Montenegrin teams are participating, there is only Brescia from Italy, only Barcelonetta from Spain, only Olympiakos from Greece, and the list goes on… But instead, we have such great teams from Georgia, Belorussia, Holland, etc… which just happen to be out of their league, and lose easily all the games with more than 10,15 goals of difference – which was exactly the opposite of what was needed in this sport, and in this type of competition.
Competitions for Clubs
This crisis led to significant player movement from some new powerhouses. Since the financing was getting slimmer in the “western” countries, more top players decided to go east, where their contract would end up smaller, but at least they would play at their home lands. This specially goes for experienced Serbian and Hungarian internationals, who used to be the leading players in teams across Italy and Spain. Their returns meant the strengthening of national competitions and and a fight for more public and media attention. Most impressive change in the national competition quality can be seen in the Serbian national competition, which today represents one of top three leagues, while it used to have only one dominant club (Partizan Belgrade) which ruled untouchably for the last 10 years. In 2012/13 now there are 4 top teams (3 of them participants in the Euroleague and 1 playing in the semifinal of the European Cup) with some of the best Serbian and International stars. How did this happen? Well, first of all the national Federation and the clubs decided to make a best of the fact that the richest European clubs, are not as rich as they used to be, so a lot of very quality players are there for grabs. National federation considers this project as a way of further promoting the sport in the country, opening new pools, rising interest among the young population to engage in water polo and increasing media coverage. Clubs, along with municipal governments, few sponsors and a great personal enthusiasm tried to bring back and sign some of the best international Serbian players who used to play abroad.
Red Star Belgrade (the biggest local rival of Partizan in all sporting disciplines), signed super stars like Andrija Prlainovic, Nikola Radjen, Dusko Pijetlovic, Denis Sefik, Boris Vapenski. With a group of very talented young players and with a promising coach Dejan Savic they represent one of the strongest teams in Europe, and one of the pretenders for the European title even (already they have won the national cup trophy – the first trophy for the club after more than 20 years).
Vaterpolo: Zvezda - Partizan 9:8 - Kup je nas!
Delije na vaterpolu: Zvezda - Vojvodina
Another club – Radnicki from the city of Kragujevac, formed yet another super strong team. This is a completely new team, which never played on the top level, and they started from scratch. Ambitious management, supported by the municipal government gathered around the idea of creating a new representative water polo center in their city. Vanja Udovicic, one of the best players in the world in this moment, was signed and actually he was in charge of organizing the rooster for the team. And what a team it is. Just to name a few – Filip Filipovic, Boris Zlokovic (MNE), Damir Buric (CRO), Aleksandar Ciric, Andy Stevens (USA)… Led from the bench by ex-Serbian national coach Dejan Udovicic, they are a serious contender for all titles no matter the competition. Besides the national championship, they are currently playing in the semifinal of the European Cup, being the top favorite of winning it.
Vaterpolo, polufinale Kupa Srbije, Radnicki -- Partizan 10:11
Although Partizan Belgrade lost some of their most experienced players from last year, a new generation of young lions is developing at the Banjica pool. And they have one of the best role models to learn from – their coach Vladimir Vujasinovic. He ended his flawless career this year, and jumped instantly into the hot coaching spot of the legendary water polo club. Although his team is young, the marking of Vladimir’s work are obvious in the style and determination of players, and it is sure that Partizan will once more produce several future top international stars.
Grobari na vaterpolu / Partizan - Cz
But, as usual, for every story there is a back side. Great ambitions, serious projects but is it really sustainable? So far, the sporting part of the idea was a success. Great games, a lot of people watching, regular live TV broadcasts of the games. But, what to say when at the middle point of the season, Red Star players have received barely one and a half salary, and Radnicki’s players only one since the start of the season. Unfortunately, this is the main problem with municipalities being major donor of resources – you have no guarantee when the funds will actually going be transferred. Still there are no real sponsorship deals, no matter how successful your club or national team is, this still represents a small sport, which struggles for broader attention. The players at this moment, although not satisfied with the situation, decided to continue with the regular trainings awaiting the better days to come. This is the story in Serbia, but many internationals who faced similar problems in Hungary, due to lack of remuneration just fled their teams (ex: Gojko Pijetlovic left Ferencvaros, Milos Korolija and three other players quit the team of Debrecin…). And the situation is aggravating constantly throughout Europe… What will LEN do? Club scene and houses are definitively changed this year, but this be further followed in the future articles, when competitions enter in their final stages. Apart from the clubs, one more thing is noticeable in Europe in the Olympic aftermath; that of the changes of national coaches. Some of the hall of fame coaches, who wrote the history of the game, are off from the bench. Ratko Rudic, is no longer the coach of Croatia. Men who won it all, after winning the gold medal in London, decided to step down from this position, as he felt he has reached his personal ambitions and limits with this team. His ancestor will be Ivica Tucak, former coach of Jadran HN, one of the most perspective coaches in Croatia. Still, Rudic won’t be far from the pool and national team, since he was appointed as the general counselor for all national teams, a role which might give him even more influence on the overall coaching and strategical organization in Croatia. Denes Kemeny – legendary Hungarian coach, who won 3 consecutive Olympic medals with his team, and numerous other titles, decided it’s time to leave to, and transfer the leadership to younger generations. His assistant and one of the best Hungarian players Tibor Benedek, will continue as the head coach. It will be a challenging task for Tibor, since there is a major remodeling of the team to come. One more successful trainer – Dejan Udovicic from Serbia, won’t be leading his team any more. Since January 2013, Dejan Savic will be in charge of the senior national team, assisted by another legend Vladimir Vujasinovic, who will be in charge of the B team and younger selections. These 2 young coaches, are expected to impose their charisma, winning attitude and hardworking principles in the selections, and continue the medal streak of the Serbian water polo in all international competitions.
**In the previous version of this article some of the facts stated were not accurate, and with this acclamation I would like to clarify them in order to stay true to the reality of the events. The letter, from the players was never actually published and seen by the public, and it was an incorrect statement that it had directly accused the head coach as mentioned before. Also Dejan Udovicic was not relieved from his duty; it was his decision to resign from the post.
[Click the photo of Srdjan to learn more about his water polo experiences .]