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When the first ever European aquatics championships were held in Budapest in 1926, Yugoslavia was an only national entity. It was then called Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and it included the current territories of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro. Three years later it would become, simply, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Nevertheless, the first ever medal won by its water polo national team only came in 1950; it is a bronze. Meanwhile, the geopolitical situation had changed again; the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed a few months after the end of the WWII, although the transition from the monarchy to the new government had already occurred in the previous years.
Once the bronze medal was conquered in Vienna – a twist of fate, as some of the Yugoslavian territories had been under the domination of the Austria-Hungarian Empire -, the water polo national team almost immediately figured among Europe leaders.
The Yugoslavs would step up the podium for eight times in a row, winning four silver medals. The team had always to give way to the big water polo powers behind the Curtain, Hungary and Soviet Union. However, it was quite evident the great achievement was round the corner.
Finally, Yugoslavia peaked during the 1980s, when the first nationalistic turmoils emerged after the death of Marshal Tito. The coach was Ratko Rudić (pictured right), who ensured two Olympic gold medals in 1984 and in 1988 – both won to the detriment of the United States team – and the first World triumph in 1986 in Madrid, with a last-second victory against Italy. Afterwards, Rudić moved to Italy to coach the Settebello and was replaced by Nikola Stamenić.
The new manager gained the confidence of the top of the Yugoslavian sporting federation by winning the gold medal at the World Championships in 1991 in Perth. In the final match his team defeated in a tight win (9-8) the rising Spain of Estiarte, Rollán and Sans.
The strenght of the Yugoslavians was based on two blocs – the Serbs on one side, the Croats on the other -, with Montenegrian Mirko Vičević being the only one exception.
But something unexpected occurred while the Balkan national team appeared to be unbeatable. This was the victory of the anticommunist parties of Jože Pučnik in Slovenia and, above all, Franjo Tuđman in Croatia. The first claims of independence began, the situation came to a head and in the summer of 1991 the Croatian and Slovenian sporting authorities forbid to their own athletes to participate in the various competitions as members of the Yugoslavian committee.
The European Championships were going to start in a few days in Athens and the national team coached by Stamenić have to renounce to five top-players such as Mislav Bezmalinović, Perica Bukić, Ranko Posinković, Dubravko Šimenc and even Ante Vasović, Serbian father and Croatian mother born, who is prevented by his club Jadran Split.
However, their replacements demonstrated to perform at the same level, as Yugoslavia won their first European title. Once again, in the final match they defeated Spain thanks to only one goal of difference (11-10). Meanwhile, Croatia and Slovenia voted for the separation from Yugoslavia.
The Athens triumph was the swan song of Yugoslavia as unified team and they would have not taken part into the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. In the meantime, the Balkans War broke out and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia obtained their all-desired independence. The old Yugoslavia of Marshal Tito crumbled, the famous red star was removed from the flag and only Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia remained to represent the country.
The new national team, still under the management of Stamenić, suffered from the definitive farewell by the Croatian bloc and it would have taken some years to turn the corner. The Yugoslavs had to be content with the silver medal at the 1997 European Championships in Seville, while they ended with the third place at the World Championships in Perth the year after.
The new millennium began and, exactly ten years since their first European title, Yugoslavia were back to rule: as the long Stamenić era concluded, Nenad Manojlović was the new manager. In the final match in Budapest, Serbs and Montenegrians beat a surprising Italy, now coached by Alessandro Campagna.
Although the 1990s definitely decided the destinies in the Balkans, it was in the following decade that sports and politics crisscrossed. The “perfect” scenario was the one drawed by the 2003 European Championships; they were held in Kranj, Slovenia, and the final match was reached by Croatia and newborn Serbia & Montenegro.
Clashes took place in the water as well on the swimming pool stands, as the gold medal was a matter of two countries which were once separated by mutual hatred. Some Croatian fans forced the entrances and accessed the venue without paying a regular admission ticket.
Meanwhile, Croatia took the lead for most of the time, even with three goals of advantage. On the other side, however, there was an invincible opponent who managed to make the match going into the extra time. This was introduced by dressings put on Slovakian referee Kratovchil’s wounds, as a bolt fell onto his head.
Serbian Aleksandr Šapić scored the decisive goal (9-8) during the first extra time and hell broke loose on the stands, due to an insufficient security. Many drunk Croatian uligani uprooted the seats and threw them into the water or onto the players, while a second group came close to the television area and damaged frameworks and equipments, even interrupting for some minutes the live broadcasting of Italian television RAI. The situation deteriorated as Serbian minister Goran Svilanović dived into the swimming pool as homenage to his fellow national team’s triumph.
That was not all, however. Serbian fans were overflowing into the streets of Belgrade to celebrate the victory, but they accidentally saw images of the riots on TV. They directed themselves in front of the Croatian embassy offices.
Windowpanes were smashed, walls were smeared, the Croatian white-and-red chequered flag was burnt and replaced with the Serbia-Montenegrian one. Local fans did the same in Novi Sad, where the crowd even hymned the war criminals Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić. It became a diplomatic incident, as Milan Simurdić, Serbian embassador in Zagreb, was urgently called by the Croatian government, while the ministry of foreign affairs Tonino Picula cancelled a visit in Montenegro.
Three years passed. The European Championships were held again in the Balkans, in Belgrade. The hosting team confirmed the continental title won in Kranj, but without Montenegrian players. Only a few months before (21 May) a referendum had ratified the independence of Montenegro, however recognised by the Serbian government.
Nevertheless, before the split to take place, the national team had won their second Worl League title under the flag of the two nations, which were still unified. Therefore, the Serbs, now managed by Dejan Udovičić, went down in history as the first national team to have become European champions four times and as many different names.
The last episode of tangles between sports and politics dates back to the summer of 2008, on the eve of the Beijing Olympic Games. The European Championships took place in Málaga and Serbia and Montenegro were the two finalists, with the latter winning not surprisingly the gold medal.
This epic saga has recently added new chapters. Two years ago, in Zagreb, experienced goalkeeper Deniš Šefik worn the Montenegro national team cap, after serving Serbia until 2008. It was in that year that he had a strong discussion in the Beijing Olympic village with teammate Aleksandr Šapić, who accused him to have been corrupted by Montenegrians themselves for the final match in Málaga.
Then, a few months ago, Partizan Belgrade fans dedicated songs to Ratko Mladić and Kosovo as “the heart of Serbia” during the Euroleague Final Four in Rome, where they also yelled Mladost Zagreb fans offending the ustaše, the Croatian fascists who were active at the time of the WWII.
As Winston Churchill once said, the Balkans are still producing “more history than they can consume.”