When it comes to Serbian water polo, there are no ups and downs. As that one song said, “The only way is up”, and once reached the podium, there is no stepping down, just getting another gold. When I said podium, I was (obviously) referring to the first place. Because that is how good they are. It does seem that when the Dolphins are playing big tournaments, the only thing you have to do is check the final score.

srbija-vaterpolo-Sergei-Grits21.jpg
Photo: AP /Sergei Grits

Because they really are that good. And yesterday they have shown it, by becoming the most awarded National team of all times. They are the best, but outside of the pool, they would never show it off. That is simply out of character.

When you see them without the white or blue cap, they are polite, humble, and some of them, even shy. A very different side than the one from the pool, where they fight like an army, and every goal is celebrated like the most important one.

The players of coach Dejan Savić are quadruple champions, winning the World and European championships, the World League, and as of last night, the coveted Olympics. You cannot go any further. Just rev it up, and do it all over again.

Except, there is always the financial doubt. Somehow, the medals are a bigger constant than the money. Aside from being Serbia’s most well prized sport, water polo is in fact one of the poorest. Rows and rows of medals and trophies, are being kept in display cases, and yet the clubs that have recognized and formed these men into the talented players of today, are rotting away. Dwindling, without any support. Allowing the players to either move away, or work in subpar conditions, often without regular pay.

This isn’t just something they love, it is something that is supposed to pay the bills. Most of these men have families, and for better or for worse, the pay has to be regular. But…

Why invest in a sport that has almost never left you country without a (usually gold) medal? Why bother, if there are still talented people that are doing all of this for the love and the pride? Why bother to make sure your country has a strong league that would reinforce the clubs and its talents, when the current young generation can just go to Italy or Hungary?

After the teenagers and twenty-somethings have turned into thirty-somethings, ready to retire… You just hope another round of incredible talent will be ready to jump into the pool, and take over. Some more blind faith, which in a few years may not be quite enough to hit the mark. 

There are two players that won’t be joining the future life of the National team. Team captain Živko Gocić and his best man Slobodan Nikić will be retiring. Leaving space for someone younger, as they said. Together they have played for over a decade, winning dozens of titles. Nikić is world’s most well awarded water polo player, with a staggering 29 medals. Including 5 European titles.

Forming part of the National team for over a decade, since 2003, Nikić has played a total of 354 official games.. Now, that was one hell of a ride. And it pains me to see them go, but when you become the best, you get to choose when it’s enough.

gocic-vaterpolo-22Eduardo-Verdugo.jpg
Tears of joy, and a farewell. Žile, Bobo… Thank you! Photo: AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo

One of the golden dolphins Andrija Prlainović reminded us of the other side of the medal last night, in his post match interview. “We played incredibly smart. I felt we were all ready for the biggest match of out careers (…) The rest, you saw.” 

“You know very well what sport needs. These 8-9 medals won in Rio aren’t a part of a systemic investment. In Serbia, there are practically no more professional water polo clubs. They are all in foreclosure. I have nothing to add to that. We have done everything we could from our part…”

A few seconds later, the retransmission was pulled back into the studio. Because no one wants to hear the cold, hard reality. Despite probably being fully aware of it to begin with. Last night’s statements were hopefully a wakeup call. Otherwise, they will just be another  unanswered cry for help.

The help that is more than necessary, that they’ve done everything to deserve.