BUDVA, Montenegro (Reuters) - Montenegro’s water polo team are counting on more than beginners’ luck for their first shot at Olympic greatness.
For the ‘Red Sharks’ of the Adriatic republic, the newest state at the Beijing Games, it is all a question of balancing old with new, the experience of the Yugoslav powerhouse and the hunger of a young team with a nation’s hopes on their shoulders.
“I’ve taken part in two Olympics and we have six players who were in Sydney and Athens, but this is the first Games we are going to as Montenegro,” said coach Petar Porobic.
“We are certainly real competition for the best teams in Europe, we are currently in the top six, seven teams in the world. With the motivation that comes with going to the Games, we can be in the top six, but we can also do better.”
Montenegro voted to leave its union with Serbia in May 2006, yet another state to emerge from the political and sporting power that was the old socialist federation of Yugoslavia.
The split was bittersweet for two nations that had lived together for 90 years and for a team that won silver in the 2004 Games and a world championship gold in its three short years under the flag of the ‘State Union of Serbia and Montenegro’.
The last hurrah was winning the water polo World Cup in June 2006, two weeks after Montenegro formally declared independence.
Porobic, a Montenegrin who coached the union team throughout that time, had no time for sentimentality. He threw himself into setting up a new team for his motherland, almost from scratch.
“We managed to get the berth in a really short time, we set up the team in late 2006 and we got an Olympic place in 2007,” he told Reuters, beaming with pride, just before the first World League tournament for the European zone in the town of Budva.
His team went on to win all three matches against Croatia, Italy and Greece, big names they will meet in Beijing in August.
“I think that in Europe there is no other national team with such a small number of clubs in the country, such a small pool of players to pick from,” Porobic said. Montenegro has only three clubs — Jadran, Primorac and Budvanska Rivijera.
“Surely we owe a lot of where we are to the fact that the Serbia-Montenegro team was a big power, but we also organized ourselves quickly and well,” he said.
“The most important thing is we have a generation of players that will take us to the (2012) Olympic Games in London. We don’t only have a good team now but we’ll have one of the best teams in Europe, with the most potential for the future.”
With most of the Serbia-Montenegro players going to Serbia, Porobic had to experiment: his team includes club veterans who never got to play at national level for the powerful union team and youngsters who stood out in the junior leagues. Ages range from 21 to 37.
Boris Zlokovic, who was part of the golden team of the 2005 world championships, said there were great benefits to the mix of youth and experience in the team.
“The atmosphere is fantastic, we have a great appetite for medals and trophies,” he said. He thinks expectations will only get greater as the team matures.
“We are of course looking ahead to the 2012 Games but in the meantime we are going to Beijing to do our best and are hoping for a medal. Luck is a big part of it, so you never know.”
With no other sportspeople with a realistic shot at an Olympic medal, the squad know their countrymen look to them to raise the red-and-gold flag on the podium in China’s capital.
“Water polo is the number one sport in Montenegro, so there is a lot of expectation, a lot of pressure and responsibility,” said Mladjan Janovic, at 23 one of the team’s youngest players.
“In our first year we already qualified for the Olympics and that is something to be really proud of. Now it’s tougher, coming up against teams already at the top of the world.”
The past is an inspiration, not a burden, he thinks.
“The Serbia-Montenegro team brought very good results and we want to continue this tradition,” he said.
“There is very strong competition but for sure we are not going to Beijing as spectators. We’ll do our best and give our nation a pleasant surprise.”
Editing by Clare Fallon