”This isn’t just a four-year cycle. Players are preparing for this their whole life”
Serbia’s National Water Polo team head coach Dejan Savic told the gathered national media upon leaving Belgrade for the Rio Olympics. If someone knows, it’s Dejan Savic. Record holder Yugoslavia/Serbia international with 444 caps and so close to that Olympic gold but never won it. Now after a slow start as the leader of the national water polo team (Serbia finished in 7th place at the 2013 World Championships) the former great defender went on to guide his team to an international domination of competition the past years. A generation of players that are multiple European and world champion have come to the point that all odds look in favour for that gold medal. The biggest hurdle? Perhaps dealing with the immense pressure from the home nation.
When asked both captains Zivko Gocic and Andrija Prlainovic about their first feeling on that Saturday evening January 23rd in the Belgrade Kombank Arena after having claimed the 2016 European Championships gold medal, the answer was as honest as it could be: ”Relief'”. ”Nothing more?” the second question was. ”No. The pride and joy will come later. Now it’s just relief”, both stated.
Serbian water polo players dealing with the immense pressure
It’s typical for the situation the Olympic gold medal favourites are in. Playing that tournament in front of the home crowd was an even great as a unique experience, although not the first time for some of the players, but brought immense pressure to the team. Visibly nervous they cruised through the tournament before a close game against a strong Montenegro side was won 10-8 in front of a sell-out crowd of over 16,000 defending the title. Now, six months later the team is set for its greatest challenge but before travelling to Rio had to go through that same routine of tempering expectations in the Serbian media. Routine, but honest. Why? Because the people back home have to realise that bringing home an Olympic gold medal cannot be expected beforehand. Even when you’ve won virtually all competition after the 2012 Olympics.
Coach knows. The players know. Savic played three Olympics, won bronze twice and was oh so close to the gold in that famous 2004 final versus Hungary. A young Slobodan Nikic (and Predrag Jokic, also present in Rio) were part of that Serbia & Montenegro squad in Athens. Savic was in the water with current team members Zivko Gocic, Dusko Pijetlovic, Andrija Prlainovic and Filip Filipovic in 2008 when the semi-finals were surprisingly lost to a determined USA team: 10-5. And in London, the semis once more proved insurmountable. Italy prevailed 9-7.
Unlike most other teams though the number of changes made to the roster compared to four years ago is rather low. The biggest one seems to be on the side of the pool with Dejan Udovicic being asked to leave following the London Olympics, now coaching USA men’s water polo team, and Dejan Savic having replaced him. In the water, the absence of Vanja Udovicic, who suddenly retired after the 2013 World Championships, was felt at first but created another dimension in the team, of course also due to the new coaching influences.
One can easily tell by watching Serbia perform in the knockout stage of London 2012 and, for example, in the semi-finals or final of the 2015 World Championships or 2016 European Championships (easy to find on YouTube). It leads to one of the most experienced teams in the field of competitors in Rio. And equally important, a steady team for the past three years in particular. Even the four Olympic debutants (Branislav Mitrovic, Sava Randjelovic, Milos Cuk and Nikola Jaksic) have experienced it all apart from making Olympic minutes. That steadiness made the squad look so confident in major competitions the past years and will do so again in Rio.
More experienced, older and wiser
The opening match versus Hungary on Saturday? A nice one between two traditional powerhouses. But not crucial, neither deciding both sides know. Not only Dejan Savic will have marked Thursday, August 18. Some of the players have, too. Semifinal day. That’s where history can be made.
Don’t ask the guys about the pressure. They know. Dealing with that actually could turn out to be the decider in their gold medal race. Because when the Serbian water polo team lives up to its potential, who can stop them?