Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament

This event will be held Chiba, Japan at the end of January. The three men’s teams that will be among the most serious contenders for one Olympic license are China, Japan and Kazakhstan.

The last time Japan qualified was in 1984 (11th place). They have been making a lot of efforts in the last two decades to become more competitive and have improved by regularly playing in Europe, America & Australia, and, importantly, by inviting foreign coaches from time to time to help them. Their latest serious achievement was at the WC in Shanghai last July when they beat an experienced team of Romania. Playing on own soil can be an additional advantage for Japan.

China was a host nation at the OG in Beijing and came 12th. Their previous appearance at an Olympiad was in Seoul-88 (11th). In the last decades, the country has become a top sporting nation in general and in women’s water polo in particular. This is largely due to the unique socio-economic conditions that have resulted from the Dan Xiaoping’s reforms, initiated 30 odd years ago, which transformed this nation. On the one hand, the country’s “capitalist” market-oriented economy brought in better funding. On the other, the “socialist” sporting system, based on the former Soviet Union and East Germany’s models, has been preserved. They have also been bringing foreign coaches from time to time for short periods and made a correct decision to appoint Juan Jane, of Spain, 1 year prior to the OG in Beijing and extended his contract until London-2012.

The above-mentioned “reforms” have not been that noticeable in China’s men’s water polo, however. Despite having very good material in their players, who are athletic & robust with good speed & individual skills, they have not been taking full advantage of these excellent prerequisites to make their men teams a much stronger force on a world stage – not only in Asia – both on junior and senior levels. After all, what was done with their women could have been done with their men as well. What they need are more good specialists who could “redesign” their water polo culture and add more class to their performance.

I don’t want my friends in Japan and China to misunderstand me. There is no doubt they are trying hard. But it is a fact that, whilst playing a seemingly more “literate” polo now, their teams are prone to sudden lapses in their performance. These are manifested by basic mistakes in individual and collective actions at crucial moments. I have recently been watching the matches by both teams, including at the World League in Sydney and WC in Shanghai, and could not understand some of the reactions and decision by the coaches after such moments. The game between China and Australia at the WC in Shanghai is an example; China was leading for 3 quarters only to collapse in the 4th to let 7 goals in, after committing glaring errors, and lose an important match.

After the loss to Kazakhstan – who is currently one of their principal Asian competitors – in Shanghai, the Chinese leadership decided to invite a foreign specialist to help them qualify for the London OG. A US coach, Ricardo Azevedo, agreed to do the job in the remaining 3 months. Ricardo is a good specialist and a gentleman. He is a good friend of mine. I wish him luck. It will be interesting to see if he will be able to change the players’ habits in such a short period of time to beat Kazakhstan and Japan.

It is not my business, but just to make it to London is again a short-term goal. Even if they make it, the Chinese are not going to be a real competitive force on a world stage in the long perspective unless their long-term planning approaches are changed. True, the men’s water polo is an established discipline and it is much harder to make it to the top compared to that of the women’s. However, with a proper strategic programme planning and patience, this can eventually be achieved by a power like China.

As an important part of their build up, Japan and China are taking part in the Pan Pacs tournament in Melbourne, Australia from 8-14 January.

Kazakhstan began to participate on a world stage as an independent nation from the early 90s. Their last OG appearance was in 2004 (11th). The Kazakh school of water polo was one of the strongest in the former USSR and had its own distinctive style of play – physical but skillful with cohesive collective actions. Their most famous and decorated representative is former captain of the Soviet team in the late 80s – European, world and Olympic champion – legendary Sergei Kotenko. In June 2011, they celebrated the 30s anniversary of “Dynamo” Alma-Ata’s first ever win in the Soviet Union’s championships. The significance of that achievement was that they were the first non-Moscow team in the history of the Union of Soviet Socialt Republics to win it. Those Championships were tough.

To commemorate that achievement, the Kazakh Federation organised an exhibition replica tournament and invited the veterans – former members of those teams from Moscow, Ukraine, Georgia and Uzbekistan – to play. It was moving to see my old friends, many of whom I had not seen for more than 20 years. That was an excellent idea and I thank the organisers for that.

Despite a difficult period after the disintegration of the USSR that affected water polo, the legacy of one of the best schools in the world is still alive. The nation’s Federation has been doing a lot to restore the old traditions of excellency and some good results have been achieved – Kazakhstan is the current Asian Champion among men. The team is playing in the open Russian National League as a part of their development efforts.

It is not certain as to who will win in Chiba by any means. In my opinion, Kazakhstan are the favourites subject to their form on the day and refereeing.

The other teams in Asia with strong backgrounds are Iran, Uzbekistan and South Korea. The Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament will be very interesting.

About Erkin Эркин Shagaev Шагаев
European, world, Olympic champion, two times World Cup winner Чемпион Европы, мира, Олимпийских игр, двукратный обладатель Кубка мира

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