For his oversight of the 2016 European Men’s Water Polo Championship, Darko Udovicic garnered international recognition. But the lifelong Serbian native has been in the limelight much of his adult life. Starting from his early days as a player on the VK Partizan cadet, youth and senior teams, Udovicic represented both his club and his country in international matches from 1986 until 1997. From 2004 to 2006 he was assistant director for Partizan before ascending to the club directorship in 2006, a position he held until 2011—the same year that Partizan captured its seventh European Champions League title, second only to Pro Recco.
Throughout much of his lifelong journey in water polo, Darko has been accompanied by his twin brother Dejan, who also achieved great success with Partizan, first as a player, then as a coach. In 2000 Dejan became head coach of the club’s senior team, and coached the Serbian men’s national team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. In 2013 Dejan departed Serbia for the head coaching position with the U.S. men’s national team. Under his leadership, Team USA competed at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
As his brother traveled abroad, Darko remained in Belgrade, working for the Serbian Water Polo Federation (2011-14) as well as his work with the Organizing Committee EC Water Polo Belgrade (2014-16). Currently he is responsible for the upcoming FINA World Men’s Junior Water Polo Championships as well as the Women’s European Junior Water Polo Championships 2017 in Novi Sad.
Water Polo Planet spoke with Udovicic about growing up in the golden age of Serbian water polo, his country’s current dominance of the sport, changes necessary to improve polo’s stature in the international community, and his brother’s efforts to make America more competitive against European powerhouses Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia.
You are part of a generation of players that defined Serbian water polo as Yugoslavia dissolved in the late 1980s.
Our father took my brother and me to the Banjica Pool at the age of eight. They built Banjica Pool in 1973 for the World Championship. It will be fifty years in 2023 [for] first world championship held in Belgrade in 1973.
For all the kids at that time Banjica was hard to reach by the bus [so] our parents took us by car— it was far away from the city. We didn’t know if we would stay in that sport [or] like the trainings and the sacrifices to be made together.
After a couple of months, we made friends and started to make some serious—if I can say so at the age of eight or nine—trainings. We were unique because we were twins and it wasn’t easy for the trainers or anyone else to recognize us in the pool.
Our first coach at Partizan—and for a long time—was Nikola Stamenic. Partizan already had a huge history of success in the sport, winning six trophies of European Cup. But it was the start of a new era at the Banjica Pool.
At that time Serbia was far away from the Hungarian School and especially the Russian School. We were all in Yugoslavian School of water polo. The age group we belonged to was 1969 / 1970 and we became one of the most famous groups at that time at Partizan.
We tried to close the gap between the Yugoslavian School and the Hungarian and Russian schools. Our goal was to beat them and be in front of them and to make for us a place in the water polo world.
As members of VK Partizan, one of the most successful clubs in the history of professional water polo, you and your brother were part of the transformation of the sport in Serbia.
In the younger category, we played together for six or seven years. In the first tournament, we played [representing] Yugoslavia we were not so good; the Hungarians beat us 10 goals difference. It was the 15 years old age group; by the age of 17 we start to beat them for the first time. When we finished the young categories career we beat Hungarian and Russian teams by a 10-15 goal difference.
Before when they made the age group selections from Partizan maybe one or maybe no one could pass from cadets at that time to juniors and then to the senior team. For the first time six or seven players from that age group succeeded in reaching the senior team of Partizan. We start to play for the senior team of Partizan when we were 15 years old.
I am still the youngest player to participate in a first national division game when I was 14 and a half years old in 1985, March 14 against Mornar Split.
We went up to the senior team of Partizan, which is remarkable, but also we made the national team. Before that they choose one or maybe no one to move them to another category. But the quality of the [Partizan] players was so high—you must be the best you can be to find your place in the first team.
One interesting thing: when we started playing for the first team of Partizan in 1985-86, for the first time eight players from Partizan participated in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984, and the rest of the team, the young cadets where I belong with my brother and my teammates from the same age group, won the 1985 junior world championship.
Sometimes, when we played for the national team of Yugoslavia, we had harder training during the week then during the championships [on weekends]. It was harder to find your place in the training than to play against another team in a championship of Yugoslavia.
You’ve spent your entire life involved with water polo.
I started to train when I was eight years old—and I started to play for the first team of Partizan in 1985. I played until 1997 then I went abroad and then I get back in 2001 when I became assistant coach with my brother. I finished university and went in another direction as a coach; I also was an assistant coach of the national team of Serbia in 2006 [for] age group 1987. I was there for the European Championship when we took gold and after that I was offered the job as general manager of [VK Partizan]. I stayed there until 2011.
I then moved to the Serbian Water Polo Federation as director. After that I was the general manager of the organizing company for the tremendous 2016 European Championship in Belgrade’s Kombank Arena.
For us—I don’t put my name in front of the team—during the championship I was taking care of 2,000 people. It was huge for me and it was something that we made it in a stadium that wasn’t built for water polo. We made two temporary pools in seven days and the important success for us [was] we dismantled the pools in 72 hours after the championship finished.
Serbia took the gold 10-8 over Montenegro in the title game on January 23 but what was important to me was we beat the world record of spectators watching a water polo game—18,473 spectators at the game. That day if we could offer [tickets] to anyone we could have sold 15,000 more.
Do you think that win over Montenegro in the European Championship was the start of even greater success at the Rio Olympics?
I spoke with players two months before the [European Championship] and believe me they did not realize they would play in front of such a large crowd. They made an appearance two days before the championship in front of the pools—that was something huge for them. It was important that they’re playing in front of the biggest crowd ever in their own town, and everyone is cheering for them. There’s unbelievable pressure on them from all people of Serbia—government, politicians, federation—to win.
We believed they would be very good but during the games you never know what will happen until the end.
That competition helped them and their coach [Dejan Savić] to believe that they can make first place in Rio.
If you remember in Rio from the beginning, we were up and down from the level you would expect [Serbia] to be. We found our rhythm during the second week after we moved from the first to the second pool; if we had stayed in the first pool [the Maria Lenk Aquatics Center has two pools] who knows what will be.
The national team of Serbia these days is making history—not just for water polo teams—they’re making history for all sports. We are very proud of the team and the coach; one thing is that you have harmony within the team that builds up every competition that you are going through. This adds small pieces to the larger puzzle and when you’re watching them [you ask]: “How did they behave?” in the stadium, in the pool—and they are at another level.
If you are looking very carefully you might think they are unbeatable.
In the end we’re trying to help our sport to be closer to the spectators, offer them the satisfaction that when they went to the swimming pool you saw the best players, the best athletes in your life.
After Rio, two golden players— Zivko Gocic and Slobodan Nikic—retired, but we continued with the golden era when we won the [FINA World Super League] in Moscow [last month]. We know that it will end, and we know there will be competition for 2020 [Tokyo Games] but we’re trying to build a team for 2024; I hope it will be in Los Angeles.
That would be forty years after the 1984 Olympics in LA. Will the U.S. team be as good as Serbia by then?
The U.S. team is another thing. This is the story of Serbia and the Serbian team. In Serbia we don’t have fear. There are so many countries participating in water polo; Hungary, without fear and Serbia without fear are on the top level.
For Hungary [water polo] is first national sport. In Serbia we would like it to [become] first national sport. We are trying to find support of the government on other levels for new pools and new infrastructure.
It’s important for us that we will be able to find new kids [to play]. We also are trying to build our women’s team but it’s a hard time now in the last couple of years. Maybe in ten years we will be able to play on the level with the best teams in the world.
This week’s FINA World Championship kicks off a new Olympic cycle for men’s and women’s. How will Serbia maintain its dominance in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Games?
First thing is that we don’t believe we are unbeatable. When our team is playing outside of Serbia they feel less pressure than when they are playing at home. After Rio Games where we took gold a lot of pressure on our best players went away.
Sometimes when you have so good results you are feeling you’re untouchable. When players believe in themselves and—most important—they believe in the coach and the system that they built together, they’re on the right path.
We lost two or three players from Rio de Janeiro but we believe that the past few years and the next couple of years are still “our moment.” There are opponents who can play against us at the highest level and cause us a lot of problems but when we get to the fourth quarter we play on another level. During the game when there’s much up and down, it’s important for players to concentrate as a team in the last quarter. We’ve been very good at this the last couple of years.
We know that it will not be easy but the Hungarians as a host country—they are a very good team but with a new coach they start to build another system. We will see how they perform from the start of competition because the expectations for that team from all of Hungary will be huge.
Serbia has a tricky group [includes Greece, Spain, South Africa] and I can mention other teams including Croatia—in the past it was Montenegro—Greece, Hungary, maybe Italy and maybe a team that surprises everybody. That might be Spain in some games but I don’t think they will find their way to the championship match.
They can make trouble for teams in some games but in a two-week competition with seven games I don’t think they can keep the same levels.
There’s also America, Australia and Japan. Elvis Fatovic [Australian coach], my brother, Japan—what is important for all those teams is consistency and international experience. You can make a good game, you can maybe surprise a better team but if you don’t have international experience, you’re not consistent and you’re starting to build the team all over again every single year—you need more time than you expect.
Talk about your brother’s challenge as well as his opportunity. How does the U.S. men’s team deal with outsized expectations due to the excellence of America’s swimmers and the continued success of the U.S. women’s team?
I can make a comment as an observer from outside. The water polo community needs a strong Australia and America. We need big countries to present on the highest level of our sport. That is something that all water polo people can speak of in the same direction.
But there’s expectations and there’s reality. Fatovic and the Australian team and America with my brother, those two teams can make something huge but they need time. One thing for a coach there is to recognize another culture, another way of thinking for the people who are in that sport, how the players behave between themselves, how they are training. That’s very important.
I spoke with Fatovic a couple of weeks ago when he was in for a senior match with Serbia. He mentioned that he planned one thing before the Rio Olympics and after the Games he was counting on certain players and now they have disappeared.
It’s a problem that you’re building up something regarding your program and you expect from the beginning the best result that you can make and then players disappear [because] the make other decisions for their lives.
European water polo is not helping American and Australian water polo, that’s for sure. After the economic crisis a couple of years ago a lot of players from America, after they graduated from college, they went to Europe to play [professionally]. That’s not happening anymore.
Given your experience and perspective, how healthy is water polo and what is the future for the sport?
When we speak honestly among ourselves, we try to see how our game will be in the future. Europe sees water polo in one way; from Australia, Japan, America it’s through another pair of eyes.
It’s a pity in the ranking of aquatic sports in FINA, water polo—my sport—is on the bottom level. Why is a long history. I don’t want to speak about swimming, which is another world, but high diving, diving and open swimming are making progress, getting more spectators, making more events that someone is paying to sponsor.
Our sport is not on the same level. From time-to-time we are going up and down. We are not going up so high but are going down to the bottom. That’s ridiculous. You saw what happened in Rio when teams were playing in green water.
The last 30 years we are in the wrong direction. When you speak with coaches a lot of them tell you that the biggest problem for our sport is the rules and that spectators cannot understand what’s happening in the water and what the referees are calling.
I had the same way of thinking when I was a player. When I became a general manager I was still thinking that the rules are the biggest problem in our sport. But I’ve started to realize there’s another problem. Especially in Europe, water polo needs a specialized department that’s going to exclusively take care of that sport—personnel, marketing, everything.
On the depth ranking we are somewhere in the waiting room, but we cannot accept that we should stay there. We need to present our sport in another way. The biggest problem of [water polo] is to decide what the product is we are selling in the market. After that we can discuss about the rules.
You are familiar with the organizing necessary to support Serbian water polo. What does it take to maintain the sport in your country?
First of all, we are water polo lovers, and we are doing what we can to help our sport and our players. We are also looking to determine the standard for ourselves—there are FINA and LEN standards but we are trying to make this for ourselves.
When you’re coming to Serbia you know that [the tournaments] will be fine. The arena will be full and there will be TV and a lot of press to cover the matches. In our country we need that for water polo to be among all the [other] sports in Serbia. If we’re not doing that we will very quickly be moving in the wrong direction—in a couple of tournaments we might [finish] in the second division. That would be a very hard thing.
In Europe—and I spoke with my brother—the government is supporting the teams. We thank the local authorities because they are making the tournaments. Without that we couldn’t make it. For example, the European Championship in Belgrade cost about 4 Million €. In Hungary the Final Six tournament is about the same. I don’t know how much it would be in America but for the younger categories you must spend at least 150,000 €. For all these competitions the Federation must raise the funding to cover expenses that the government doesn’t pay for.
Another thing is to promote our sport and to bring more girls and boys to the pool to play water polo. Without that we will not exist in a couple of years.
The younger championship this August in Belgrade is where we start to see success for our athletes. Look at Filip Filipovic, when he was 15 years old he was playing for his country. Regarding him, regarding his playing for the national team of Serbia—you know the remark is that he should win with his teammates at the Beijing Olympic Games! He won last year.
You need the time… you need a long period in the right direction. You also need the team occupied on itself one way. Filipovic at the age of 17 he played 70 games at least. Of those games he played at least 40 games in competition for Yugoslavia and 30 games for the national team of Serbia, Montenegro, Yugoslavia international.
You can count on the fingers of one hand how many international games [players from] Australia and America have played.
You asked me what the expectations are for Serbia, for Australia and for America especially. You can maybe write all the names from America who participated in the Olympic Games in Rio. Scratch some names that are retired—Azevedo, Moses, Mann—and try to find the rest of the names in Tokyo. Imagine if some of those players who are the age of 20 – 22; imagine they are playing in the Los Angeles Olympic Games in seven years from now.
Put all the names from Serbia from Rio and you’ll see who will be there in 2024. You need not just time… what is missing from all the teams out of Europe? You miss the group of older players—not just a couple of players. Older players handle things in the right direction over some years. Then the younger players join them to build a new era.
If you have just a couple of them and you put all the younger teammates with the age group of 20 – 22 it’s not possible to make a huge success in bigger competitions like the Olympic Games.
Serbia made a similar decision. We put all the pressure on a group—Sapic, Vujasinovic, Vasovic, Savic—to be first in 2000. In the 2004 Athens Olympic Games we lost against Hungry in group play; we were leading two-goals difference and we lost in the last quarter giving up three goals. The same things happened in the final.
When you look back at those Olympic Games in Athens—that [Serbian] team should have made the golden age of water polo. Everybody who is in water polo can confirm that.
The 2004 Olympics was also a watershed moment for the U.S. men’s team coached by Ratko Rudic.
The U.S. was very good at that time but they get a couple of injuries in competition and FINA [prevented] them from replacing the players and before the start of the competition they were out of it.
The team that made the success in Beijing was together at least seven years. First thing that Ratko, and Fatovic and Udovicic—he sent all the players to play internationally in Europe.
But the Olympic Games—if you’ve never been—you cannot compare with [anything else]. I never played in the Olympic Games but as someone involved with the Serbian national team from 2004, it’s a huge different in comparison to the World Championship or the European Championship. You’re in situations which are hard to adapt to, for example in Rio di Janeiro, you are waiting two days to play the games. When you count the weeks that you are out of your country it’s about six or seventh and you must be at the top level in the seventh week.
When the European countries are playing in Europe it’s a huge advantage over the Americans and the Australians. They are three weeks in Europe for Budapest and the most important week for the teams is the second week when you are playing classification games—they will be at least four or five weeks from home.
What are the long-term prospects for America?
First of all they need to find a way to make more international games. The gap between the top countries like Serbia, Croatia and Hungary… the perspective for American water polo should come by 2019 [at the Pan American Games].
Serbia is far away from you, for sure. Serbia will be far away in four years. The huge step for Americans will be if they can close the gap with all those other European countries and to be able to beat Brazil and Canada by a five-goal difference.
Maybe they can make a huge problem for Italy or for Spain of for Greece. But [the top teams] are playing kind way of water polo, and [it’s difficult] for Americans or Australians to adapt to that game.
First steps [for Americans] they should try to close the gaps with all other countries as much as they can and not worry about Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia.
In Serbia there’s a saying: “It’s very important to find yourself where you are.” Everybody knows that America is strong in sports. And when you come from America you seek success. But from my point of view—not because my brother is there—but it is important when you measure your team with someone else you should measure your league. And if you measure with someone who’s in another league, the disappointment is huge.
Serbia in the next couple of years will beat America for sure. But the gap is closing.