Four years ago, the Serbian men’s water polo team stood on the brink of yet more Olympic heartache. The reigning world and European champions arrived at Rio 2016 as overwhelming favourites, yet after opening with two draws and a loss they faced elimination and humiliation until, led by defender Filip Filipović, the team said, “No, not this time…”
Every Olympic career is a tale of four years’ dedication defined by one result, one match, one moment. For Filip Filipović, the long-time talisman of the Serbian men’s water polo team, it seemed as if he was destined to be part of a golden generation that never quite managed to shine on the biggest stage of them all.
Third at Beijing 2008, third at London 2012, the Serbians defied their status as the world number 1-ranked team at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 by beginning their campaign by drawing twice and losing once.
“We didn’t know what was happening, we didn’t know why. We dedicated our career and lives to the Olympic Games and yet we started like that,” Filipović admits, the bewilderment still apparent four years later.
The pressure was immense. Not only had things gone wrong previously – at Beijing 2008, Serbia had been thrashed in a “disastrous” semi-final by the unfancied USA before “over-confidence” had led them to fall to a narrow final-four defeat at the hands of Italy at London 2012 – but Filipović and his teammates also knew their water polo-mad compatriots were pining for a first-ever Olympic gold.
Two things happened to transform the mood and ultimately the direction of their Games. First, two coaches – in basketball and taekwondo – turned up unexpectedly in the team room.
“After we lost against Brazil [in their third game, following draws with Hungary and Greece], our national basketball coach Aleksandar Djordjevic came to us and said, ‘Guys, why these faces? I still believe in you. I know you are going to win and you are here to win a gold medal. I don’t want to see these faces; you haven’t lost anything; you just didn’t have your best day this first week. Believe me, everything will change next week. I am not your coach but, guys, you need to believe me.’”
On the back of that boost, Filipović recalls the impact of the second visitor.
“Also the [Serbia] taekwondo coach came in with I cannot describe the quantity of positive energy and smiles. He didn’t need to say anything, we already felt better.”
Suddenly people were smiling once more in training, and Filipović understood what to do next.
“We knew we didn’t need to change anything [regarding the team’s play], we just needed to speak a little between ourselves, relax a little bit and everything would come into place. So, we went out to a restaurant, relaxed, and from the next game things were a little bit better,” he says.
“It was the small details that helped us change.”
The Serbians began to crank into gear. Wins against Australia and Japan ensured they sneaked out of Group A and into a quarter-final against Spain. World champions in 2009 and 2015, and European champions in 2012, 2014 and 2016, the team knew how to win knockout matches and, with the blip behind them, it was time to get over the final hurdle.
“We knew we wouldn’t have a third chance for a gold medal,” Filipović says. “Our whole careers, all we had dedicated in those years would not matter if we didn’t get a gold medal in the Olympic Games.”
For Filipović, who had been named European player of the year in 2009, 2014 and 2016, the advent of elimination play was just what he needed.
“I like playing under pressure, certainly,” reveals the man who made his international debut in 2003 and has played more than 300 times for his country since, scoring more than 550 goals. “I realise in those moments that I have something to lose.
“But to be honest, in the past three or four years I don’t feel so much pressure. I don’t know whether that’s because of the experience I have, or all the important games I have played with my teammates; but for me, water polo in the past years is, let’s say, some kind of joy – a moment of total joy, total relaxation.”
With the laid-back Filipović to the fore, Serbia saw off Spain 10-7 before beating powerhouse Italy 10-8 in the semi-final. That left defending champion Croatia in the final. Despite the magnitude of the occasion and the symbolic nature of the opposition, Filipović and friends managed to keep calm, and very much carry on.
“I think Rio was the fourth year that we hadn’t lost against Croatia. We didn’t feel so much pressure,” says Filipović, who had starred in the World Championship final win over Croatia 12 months before the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
“In the final, it’s not important who is against you, or if you have played against the team a few times or it’s the first time. It’s just one game. There are not so many tactics or technical details, it’s just being willing and showing from the very first moment your dedication to win.”
Subsequently named most valuable player of the Olympic tournament, Filipović unsurprisingly has only fond memories of the 11-7 win.
“I remember a few of the goals and especially the defence, but the thing I remember most is the smiles. The smiles of the guys after some good defence and on the bench, too. This atmosphere, this positive energy was so memorable, and it will definitely stay in my heart for my whole life,” he recalls.
“The energy we could feel that day was incredible, really something unique. I felt a really proud Serbian because I was a part of this great team.”
The 33-year-old wants more. He remains at the heart of a Serbian team determined to defend its title at Tokyo 2020. Fifth place at the 2020 European Championships was “not what was expected”, Filipović concedes. But he is adamant the team is on a “good path”.
“I am really looking forward to the Games, to celebrate not only the Games but a big win against this virus,” says the man who is eyeing up a career in diplomacy once he finally retires from the pool.