WATER POLO ARTICLES
“I’m addicted to sports emotions”
Legends coaching legends: Ratko Rudic (CRO, water polo)
By Dean Bauer
FINA Aquatics World Magazine Correspondent (CRO)
The world of water polo received news from Italy in June, with a certain dose of sensation. The powerful club Pro Recco from Genoa, the multiple Italian champions and the record-holder Champions League winner club (with 8 titles) decided to hire a new coach for the coming season. And that was the most successful coach in history of this game: Ratko Rudic! Surprise is multiple. First, because all Rudic’s coaching career and all the successes are linked to the national teams he led, not the clubs. Second, at the age of 71, many thought that the retirement moment came. Not with Rudic.
Is it right that we think it is crucial that Ratko Rudic does not like to watch water polo? You want to participate, to be part of the spectacle. Sitting on the stands during water polo matches …that’s not you.
Ha, ha. In fact, yes. Absolutely. I’m the protagonist. I like to play my part in the game, create, make decisions, sometimes I like to suffer, but also to be delighted after the given match. I like to ‘live the match’. These are great emotions. Coaches and players, athletes are addicted to this, and I’m personally definitely addicted to emotions in the sport.
When you returned to Croatia from USA in 2004, you said, “I came back to lead my homeland team, and after that I’ll finish my career.” That’s how it happened as after the Olympic gold in London 2012, you left the Croatian bench a month later. However, in just one more year you became the head coach of Brazil. That time you said: “I will finish my career after the Rio de Janeiro Games”. Indeed, after the Games in Rio, you returned to Zagreb and announced: “That’s it. My coaching career is over.” So next is Pro Recco…
Listen, when I said all of that, I really did think so. That’s how I felt. Of course, my career was so really great, that it is not easy to find some new motivation, to start some new coaching adventure and find some new energy, what you need to have as a coach. When the call came from Brazil, I must admit I was intrigued. You know, as soon as something intrigues you, then it means you’ve made more than a half of the decision. Brazil has been a good choice for me, in every aspect. As for the progress of the sport, water polo in Brazil, my stay was a good thing for the country, and we had some great moments at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, how the tournament unfolded. Everything was there nice for me. Then I returned to Croatia and in that moment I really thought that I finished my coaching career. I started to work in water polo on some other levels, in different positions. As a member of the Croatian Water Polo Federation’s Expert Committee and as a consultant for the club Jadran Split. I was also involved in the FINA water polo programme, and I worked in some international project like HaBaWaBa, which promotes water polo among children around the world. That was quite enough for me.
If you lived so well, find the areas to work for the sport, how did Pro Recco manage to persuade you to become a coach of their team?
I came to the Champions League Final Eight tournament in Genova as a spectator. I just said hello to Pro Recco leaders, whom I knew before, first of all the owner of the club, Mr Gabriele Volpi and the president Maurizio Felugo who was my player in Italy during the late 90s. Felugo had a brilliant career and I was the first who selected him to the senior team. For them, it should have been a disappointment to lose the final at home. When I returned to Zagreb after that tournament, Maurizio called me. I did not immediately accept his offer. I was thinking for a few days but then I said yes because the project is somewhat similar to that of Brazil. It’s intriguing, a big club, great environment and it’s also about doing a different job what I used to do as I was working in national teams beforehand.
This is the most interesting part of the whole story. You are one of the most accomplished coaches in the history of all sports, you led the national teams of the former Yugoslavia, then Italy, USA, Croatia, Brazil. But never a club. No, it’s not true, for two years you coached Partizan Belgrade between 1988 and 1990.
Yes, but it’s not that strange to me because I was working with national teams of USA and Brazil in the same way a club is run. We have trainings on a daily basis.
I agree, but with these teams you did not play league competitions, you did not have a match every week. The club is still different, every Saturday or Wednesday you will have a new exam, a new challenge…
True, working at a club has its own specifics, but in terms of programming the format is very similar. We have to set goals, where we want to arrive and what we want to be. There are similarities between clubs and national teams. You have to know exactly at what point – in 10 or 14 days, maybe even less – you want to be at the peak of the form. While I was in Italy, as well as later in Croatia, I have always visited clubs and talked with their coaches about programmes and workouts with athletes, players. Based on that, I have written even some tutorials with suggestions to coaches what and how to work. Of course, I was primarily responsible for the national team players, but I shaped these programmes for all players. So while I was as national head coach I was pretty familiar with the work done in the clubs.
We talk a lot about differences, but there are similarities, at least in this particular case since Pro Recco is almost like a national team – in fact, it’s a best of the world selection with the most outstanding players from Italy, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro.
And all these players should play together for a certain amount of time to adopt the game’s automation. I’ve always worked in a way to create a compact unit. Now in Pro Recco we are also thinking of building up a group of young players who will be the game-changers for a longer period of time.
Another very important part should be that this call came from Italy. This is your second home, even if Ratko Rudic is a Croat and in Croatia he is a highly esteemed person in media, in public, but in Italy… There, many say, you enjoy the status of an adored deity. And it is a mutual love as you are well known for adoring Italian mentality, culture, their way of life…
I can recall two occasions which first caught my attention and then led to fall in love with Italy. The first was in 1986, when I was the coach of Yugoslavia, and we met Italy in the final of the World Championships in Madrid. It was a miraculous game that lasted more than two hours, and – based on the rules that time which didn’t have the shootout or the sudden death – it had 8 more periods in extra-time. It lasted forever. The Italians, even today, consider this match one of the best in history. They also celebrated their national team even though they lost then (the legendary centre-forward Igor Milanovic scored the winning goal 0.1sec from time in the 8th extra-period – Editor’s note). Already after that match I became very popular in Italy. Then came the year of 1992, when I sat on the bench of Italy and we won Olympic gold in Barcelona. Also amidst very interesting conditions, since we played against the host team of Spain, in front of the crowded stands, even King Juan Carlos attended the game. It was widely celebrated just as gold at the 1994 World Championships in Rome. Still, the second key moment came in 1995, at the European Championships in Vienna. I a fully-fledged Italian team there, with eight new players compared to team that won the World Championship gold a year earlier. There was also a lot of criticism of my decision, but when we won the title at the Europeans again with that such young team, Italy exploded! They could not believe that it was possible. I was then placed in the media, in public at the level of all the biggest soccer stars today. And it remained like that to the present day. Let’s say, after the Olympics in London in 2012, when I won gold with Croatia, Corriere della Serra, a large Italian daily newspaper selected the three biggest stars of the London Games. Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and third one was – me! Yes, I have a very good reputation in Italy.
In fact, you are not leaving anywhere, but you are going home.
Yes, Italy is home to me. Of course, Croatia is my base, but in Italy I feel very good.
It’s obvious that your coaching career is still going on, but from the past, what is your biggest achievement? It’s not an easy pick for a man who earned 40 medals as a coach.
From a purely professional standpoint, my biggest achievement was winning the European Championships with Italy in Vienna 1995. It was the fruit of a single programme because these young players who played in 1995, were selected three years earlier and systematically, slowly developed since 1992 in order to be ready to take on their role at the Europeans in 1995. In the final there the Hungarians were the absolute favourites. Nobody gave Italy the slightest of a chance. However, we physically and tactically bettered that Hungarian team in that match.
Over the last few years, it has been prevalent in the water polo that physical training is becoming more and more important and the ‘artists in the water’ become a minority. What is your opinion?
That’s obvious, but all the sports go in that direction, not just water polo. Sport moves in the direction of ever increasing speed and strength. The only thing that can protect the beauty and art of the game is tough sanctions. We have talked a lot about this in FINA and there are certain ideas to keep the speed of the game, but also the beauty of water polo. But we definitely need more punitive punishment. Then the game would be ‘cleaner’ and more understandable to its viewers.
You mentioned the word ‘understandable’. What the sport has to do to bring water polo closer to a greater number of people, to be more clear just like handball and basketball, for example?
I think other sports have problems, too. Some sports even have ten judges, video cameras and still disagree with some decisions. Uncertainties remain but this is part of the package in every sport. It’s not everything to see each and every move clear and in detail, especially not in water polo where visibility is limited because it’s an aquatic discipline. Of course, we can also introduce video technology to clarify some things…
Would you go for VAR in water polo like football had in Russia, at the FIFA World Cup?
Yes, absolutely. Obviously, some things need to be technically defined. We have a resemblance to rugby, in some details. For example, in water polo, anyone who holds the ball, can be attacked and this is not a foul. Still, even today’s rules the players without the ball should not be touched. And that has to be judged clearly, fairly, on a constant basis. Next, I plead for a greater flow of the game, thus the role of centre-forwards in water polo would be reduced.
It’s been a lot of talk about changing game rules for the last year. Which of these proposals could be adopted, what are the implications of what you propose?
The suggestion is good about moving a direct free-throw and the penalty-shot line from 5 to 6 metres. There are some more to think of, but after the Tokyo Olympics 2020, more radical changes should take place. Perhaps we might introduce personal fouls instead of opting for 20-second exclusions. Anyway, there are ideas which I consider good ones.
Do you feel that water polo can lose its status as an Olympic sport?
No, because water polo has its place in the history of the Olympic games as the oldest team sport. Secondly, FINA has a very strong position in the Olympic structure. Third, water polo is present on all continents. Young people love water polo and there is no fear around this sport. It is great that FINA now introduces a championship for children younger than 16. In Europe, LEN introduces championships for children under 15, and within the project HaBaWaBa camps children under 13 years play great games. So everyone is involved.
Many of your colleagues disagree with the new limitation of the number of players for the Tokyo Olympics where only 11 players can be fielded, two of whom are mandatory goalkeepers.
Yes, that debate has been lasting long, but I think things are going to be better now. I know that LEN thinks that at the 2020 European Championships there will be 15 players in the squad, 13 can play in one match, but two can be exchanged in between. I think that FINA could adopt that. Clearly, the issue of the 2020 Olympic Games remains, but at the recent FINA Conference in Budapest it was discussed, and it was concluded that one of FINA’s first tasks for the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024 is to return to the number of players to 13.
Players have been complaining on the number of matches during the season too. They think it’s getting way too much.
I do not think so. More important is how the athletes are prepared. They need to get used to a certain number of games. In all team sports you have 60-70 games per year. After all, in water polo, the athletes’ recognition comes from the games played in national teams. The success of clubs has more of a local significance, while the national team is the one which really determines the status of the players.