A few weeks after winning the Olympic gold medal a Serbian water polo player Filip Filipovic looked back to the Rio experience for his website ffilip10.com. As part of the team that won every single competition in the past couple of years, Filipovic highlights a team meeting in Rio with captain Zivko Gocic after a sloppy start of the competition with two draws and one loss in the first three rounds of the group stage. That meeting was a breaking point in what turned out to be a crucial and final success of one of the most dominating generations in the history of water polo sport.
The Serbian national team is performing at a high level for quite some years now. That created the pressure to win every competition. How was that pressure felt on the team?
– We learned how to work under pressure, and we proved it many times. In January in European Championships in Belgrade, we had the gold medal on our chest before the competition even started, and it was the general impression that we should just go into the tournament to take it. Thankfully to the great crowd, atmosphere and individual quality, we achieved what was already taken for granted. That was the biggest pressure on us so far.
At the start of the Olympic tournament in Rio the first opponent was Hungary, maybe the toughest rival in the group?
– We went to Rio earlier and maybe had been there two or three days longer than we should before the start of the tournament. After a couple of days, we started to be nervous about the beginning of the competition. The game against Hungary was early, we were acclimatised, but not completely, and that was obvious. We did not play our usual game but instead shown some individual quality and how powerful we can be. We showed only some of our possibilities but were far from the team that was winning every game on previous competitions.
The second game against Greece was not much better, was it?
The game against Greece started in the same manner, but we did snap out of that bad rhythm earlier. There were a lot of fouls on centre-forwards Dusko Pijetlovic and Slobodan Nikic that were not called, also some goals were denied by referees. We did not think that it was too bad and that it can happen. Maybe we fell in our own trap because we said that they are a strong team, which they are. But, we still did not confess to ourselves that we were not playing at our best.
Then the real shock came against Brazil?
The Brazilians practically exposed us, and from this distance now, I think it helped us a lot. That defeat was bitter and stressful. We started good, leading 2:0, and 3:1. We did everything that we had discussed, but it was still clear that our real game was not there. Slobodan Soro (Brazil goalkeeper, and former Serbian goalie, and team-mate) had a good game, and we started to shoot directly in him. We did not think about the game and aggressiveness, but instead were thinking how to put the ball in the back of the net. Conditions for the play were also unbearable in that moments. You could not spend more than two quarters in the pool before your eyes started to sour. I did not see clearly for two parts in any game on the outside pool. The water was green, there was rain, wind, and the warm-up pool was too small. Simply, the conditions were not on the level of Olympic Games. That, a slow start of the tournament, along with the pressure from the success of previous competitions were distracting elements. And against Brazil, we had to pay the full price for not fighting enough.
Did nobody expect such poor start of the tournament?
After that loss, we experienced two of the hardest and longest days in our careers. We never felt so low-levelled psychologically. Then came the most important moment, a team meeting in that small white room next to the pool. We came there the morning after the game and talked to ‘Zile’ (Zivko Gocic), who told us in a brotherly and friendly manner what will probably stay between us forever. After that, we finally started to think like we should and got relieved from that pressure and nervousness, thanks to him. In that moment we found the key to unlock ourselves from that ‘cage’ that we had created. Also right after the game with Brazil, we had a meeting with coach Dejan Savic, where he told us, that he still believes in us, and that was also vitally important. Savic said other things, we are all grown man, established players, and we were aware of mistakes that we made, and the uneasy situation that we had brought upon ourselves and him.
Against Australia, it was do or die at the Olympic Games. Serbia started well, but Australia turned things around. At the end, Serbia managed to outplay the opponents and record an all-important victory.
In the match with Australia, we had ups and downs because nothing can change overnight, it takes time. We had pressure from public and FINA people who realised that if we lose we are out. We managed to overcome all that and record our first victory. That was good because we were back in contention for the quarterfinals, and we were relieved, maybe even too relieved.
Then came the game against Japan?
That game showed why the Olympic tournament is the strongest competition. Ten out of twelve teams were in the situation to go through to the quarterfinals. Japan showed us how it can look if we are not 100% determined and ready, never mind that we are a top of the class team. That unusual start and their lead ruined our victory against Australia, and the meeting that we had. It was the biggest slap in the face that we experienced, and there were not many of those. Those ten minutes were probably the hardest for this team ever. We were aware what we had to go through to come to that situation, and yet the ball just did not want to go in. On the other end, the Japanese were looking good, and the score was not good. We had to change our style of play, and like Dejan Savic like to say ‘adapt’ to their game with three players back, and three players in front. Although we never practised that kind of water polo, we passed the test.
Quarterfinal is always most important game, at least that was what the Serbian players were saying long before the tournament?
For the quarterfinal we were ready, and no matter what team would have come in front of us, they could not be prepared as we were. All these years we were preparing for that game and were always from the standpoint that the quarterfinal was the most important. We counted it to be the real start of the tournament. Maybe that was the reason why we could not find our form in the group stage. I do not want to talk about other teams, and how they calculated entering in the quarterfinals. I think that there is some sports justice, and even if it does not work all the time, it mostly does not reward those who calculate.
The original interview can be read here.
Part 2 of the interview will be published in the coming days.