Tania di Mario – Italy needs you!


The Italian women’s team is the new European champion. It is not unfamiliar role for them. In the past, they won this title in 1995, 1997, 1999 and 2003. Those results were achieved under the guidance of great coach, Pierluigi Formiconi, with whom they also won the World championships in 1998 and 2001.

Italy and Formiconi’s crowning moment was at the Olympiad in 2004 when ‘Setterosa’ won Gold.

I met Pierluigi when he was coach of the Italian Junior men’s team prior to the 1992 World Championships in Egypt. We had a joint camp in Rome. Future stars of the Italian senior team, Alberto Angelini and Alessandro Calcatera, were there. Subsequently, Italy won that WC. (See “1992 Junior Men’s Coach’s report”) A true specialist and passionate person, Pierluigi has always been pleasant and friendly with me.

In 2005, he was asked to coach the Italian men’s team. But after the Montreal-2005 world championships, he decided to retire from international coaching duties.

When Formiconi left, there was a period of relative lull in their women team’s performance.

Interestingly enough, unlike its senior teams, Italy’s junior women’s teams have not been achieving good results at the world championships; there have not been medal winning performances since 1995.

Fabio Conti was appointed after the Rome-09 World championships where Italy came
9th. Since then the Italians are on the way back to the top of world water polo again. I was watching them at the WC-2011; their perfromance was solid.

In Shanghai, the Australian team missed on top 4 losing the match to Italy through a penalty shoot-out. From my subjective point of view, it did look to me that in the last periods of that match the refereeing was a bit more sympathetic to the Italians. Having mentioned that, I am not taking anything from them; Australia also had its chances that were not converted into winning goals.

For that matter, in my opinion, Australia’s women team’s best performance there was against the powerful United States of America. That also was its best game at a world championships or Olympic games, which I have seen, with coach Greg McFadden at the helm.

Perhaps, another reason for America’s dismal performance in that match was the residual effect of their demoralizing loss to Russia in the quarter-final where they missed on top 4 at world championships for the second time in their history. First time was in 1998 in Perth where the Americans came 8th.

Italy’s latest achievement in Eindhoven-2012 has to be associated, to a large extent, with the return of one of the best players in the World, Tania di Mario. At the age of 32 she had the tournament of her life. Her performance in the semi-final against Russia, in which she scored 5 goals, was the main reason for the team progressing to the final of the European championships. Di Mario was awarded the tournament’s Most Valuable Player title. She also became MVP at the Athens Olympic games 2004.

In my previous post, “Greece – World champion! Alexandra Assimaki – an improbable centre-forward!”, I mentioned that size was not the most important factor for a water polo player. Tania is not a giant. Like Alexandra Assimaki, of Greece, she is a ‘midget’ by water polo standards. Yet she is one of the best in the world because of her intellect, skills and fighting spirit. Unlike Assimaki, di Mario is not a centre-forward, but I would use the same adjectives to describe her. She is a true leader of the Italian team and her presence makes them a much stronger and dangerous opponent for anyone.

During the theoretical sessions with my female team in China, analysing the matches from the Beijing Olympic games, I often used di Mario’s actions as good positive examples in various attacking and defensive patterns.

Speaking about “aged” players, I anticipate that it is not only Italy who will be turning to their veterans. A number of other men and women’s teams may be following that example. If recalled, these athletes would be bringing with them the presence of mind and composure that are so much needed at crucial moments when everything is at stake. Their experienced decision making combined with reliable technical execution, when under pressure, are likely to make a difference between success and failure.

Different teams have their own contexts and circumstances. Some are going through the process of rejuvenation and some continue to rely upon their old guard. Usually, a team’s rejuvenation commences at the beginning of a 4 year Olympic cycle. The key ingredient is ‘quality’. There are quality aged players as there are quality young players. (See also “Introduction of the new rules in 2005″)

Judging by the men’s team lists at the last world championships in Shanghai, there were the teams with older players (the US, Spain, Hungary) and the teams that had a well-balanced combination of experience and youthfulness (Croatia, Canada, Italy and Serbia).

The Australian team was discussed in a previous post (“Australian Men’s Olympic Squad”).

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There are several talented young players – female and male – who emerged on the world stage in recent years. At the same time, there are those who at the age above 30 still remain as key players in their teams.

The most telling example is Ivan Perez, of Spain, who is 40. I watched Ivan, who is originally from Cuba, in Shanghai and can say that if it had not been for him, the Spanish team would have lost more matches than it did.

Another example is legendary Manuel Estiarte. I remember him as a 15 years old member of the Spanish team at the European championships in 1977. Subsequently, Manuel became one of the greatest players in the world who incredibly took part in 6 Olympiads winning Gold in Atlanta-96. He was 38 years old at his last OG in Sydney-2000.

Prior to the Athens Olympiad, due to quality personnel ‘shortages’, I had to recall Craig Miller who agreed to commit but struggled to regain form after several years of inactivity. Despite working and studying full time as well as being a husband and father, Craig trained as much as the other candidates to the team and was able to help us in Athens-2004.

The Australian players, James Stanton, Sam McGregor and Pietro Figlioli, were under 20 years old in 2004 and had been brought to the National squad only in 2002. They needed several more years to mature into the world class players they are now. (See also “Squadra Azzura – World champion!”)

We had problems with filling in our centre-forward positions. Although Gavin Woods did well by then, a fit Sean Boyd would have been an excellent addition to the team. One year before the Athens OG, Sean agreed to commit but after 1 month of training withdrew. My understanding is he was not motivated enough to do the hard physical work that had to be done to be in form by August 2004.

Recently, I said to Daniel Marsden that, in hindsight, I should have invited him. Given how young our team was, Sean and Daniel’s presence would have made the difference of 1-2 goals less against us and 1-2 goals more for us. That would have been enough for the team to make at least top 6. If Germany and Greece were able to make respectively top 6 and 4, so could we.

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An Australian equivalent of di Mario was the “Golden girl” of Australian water polo, Yvette Higgins. She is widely known as the one who scored the famous “3 seconds goal” that sealed the Gold winning result for Australia in Sydney-2000.

However, there was much more to Yvette’s capability as a player. She had the capacity to be on a par with the likes of Assimaki and di Mario. I remember that at the beginning of the 2001-2004 Olympic cycle she was by far the best player in the Australian squad. There are reasons to believe that her presence in the Australian team, even to the present day, would have made difference in the results that have been achieved.

Sports governing bodies ought to be making more efforts to motivate talented athletes and find additional stimulus to keep them going. If professional results are expected, adequate professional support should be provided to athletes as well.

After the ‘disastrous’ Montreal-1976 campaign, the USSR men’s team was rejuvenated. A number of young players were brought to the National squad. 52 athletes were trialled and considered. 11 played in Moscow-80. That Gold winning team was young. Georgy Mshvenieradze was 20 years old, Evgeny Grishin and Erkin Shagaev were 21, Mikhail Ivanov and Evgeny Sharonov – 22, Sergei Kotenko and Mait Riisman – 24. Vladimir Akimov – 28. Our captain, legendary Aleksandr Kabanov, was 32 years old.

Our coaches, Boris Popov and Viacheslav Skok, made an absolutely correct decision
to return legendary Aleksey Barkalov, who was 33, to the team less than 6 months from the Moscow-80 OG. Even though he was past his best physical condition, Aleksey compensated for it with his much needed winning mentality adding to the team’s core strength his invaluable experience and knowledge as well as superb technique-tactical skills.

The other veteran was our second goalkeeper, Viacheslav Sobchenko, 30, who also had been a second goalkeeper behind legendary Vadim Guliaev in the Gold winning team in Munich-72.

In 1980, in our Olympic game-plan against Italy, who was world champion at the time, Aleksey Barkalov was personally marking famous Gianni de Magistris – Italy’s best player. Magistris was a driver with unique skills. I have seen many excellent drivers throughout my water polo career but nothing quite like that of Magistris. He was deservedly called “Pele of swimming pools” because of his extraordinary individual skills. In the preceding couple of years it had been my job to personally mark Gianni, but in that match Aleksey did it and successfully minimized the lethal effects of Magistris’s mobility and ball dribbling.

Like the entire Soviet team in Moscow-80, Kabanov played very well in all matches. His best game, however, was in the final against formidable Yugoslavian team; Ratko Rudic, Milivoj Bebic, Zoran Roje, Predrag Manoilovic, Slobodan Trifunovic and Milorad Krivokapic, to name a few, were among our opponents. Aleksandr was unstoppable in attack and scored 3 clinically executed goals in our 11:8 win. Only a great master of Kabanov’s level of skills and experience could score those sophisticated goals under the circumstances.

To me, Two Times Olympic Champions, Aleksey Barkalov and Aleksandr Kabanov, belong to the cohort of the best players in the world of all time along with several other Soviet players of that period. I don’t think we would have won the Moscow Olympiad without them.

The Italian women’s team should be able to make it through at the Olympic Qualification tournament to be held in Trieste, Italy from 15-22 April. If it does, it will be a stronger competitor in London than it was in Shanghai last year.

Quality veterans can make a difference!

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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