Barcelona 2003 world championships’ lessons

At the 2003 world championships in Barcelona the Australian men’s team was drawn in the preliminary group together with the teams of Japan, Serbia & Montenegro and the USA. We beat Japan in the first match 10:2.


Against the powerful combined team of Serbia & Montenegro we lost in the last minute, 6:7. Tim Neesham’s defensive positioning mistake enabled them to score a decisive goal. It was not Tim’s technical mistake that let him and the team down. He distracted himself by inappropriately appealing to a referee instead of concentrating on his immediate opponent, Vanja Udovicic, who used that opportunity to get away and take a shot unobstructed.

Tim was a very gifted athlete who’s potential, regrettably, has never been fully realized. His understanding of the game, technical skills and physical condition were not the problem – they were excellent. The lack of appreciation of the importance of playing discipline and the ethic that the team’s interests always prevail over that of an individual were ultimately the core reasons for not taking full advantage of his very good prerequisites.

At the WC-2008, Vanja Udovicic became the Most Valuable Player representing the winning Serbian team. There are reasons to believe that if it had not been for Tim’s above-mentioned self-inflicted limitations; he could have been closer to the likes of Udovicic, Tony Azevedo and others in world water polo standings.

It was a very physical ‘grinding’ match in which our centre-forwards, Toby Jenkins and Ryan Moody, did an outstanding job. I believe, from that perspective, the video footage of the match is good learning material for young players to watch. It undoubtedly would also be useful for aspiring referees who are learning the intricacies of the game. Since the Centre-Forward v Centre-Back rivalry is the most contentious and difficult area to understand in water polo, it is interesting to see how the referees at the world championships were interpreting that interplay.


The match against the US team was one of the worst, if not the worst, by an Australian team under my care. We lost 7:13 and I felt absolutely ashamed at the end of it.

We managed to recover from that ‘uppercut’ within a day. In a way, that loss had its positive effects as it had a liberating effect on the team from the burden of expectations that had been building prior to the WC. We had nothing to lose anymore and the players were much more relaxed in the next crucial match when we faced a mighty Croatian team in a cross-over game for the right to make top 8.

Like Serbia & Montenegro, Croatia was one of the best teams in the World that had all the quality characteristics of the great Yugoslav water polo brand. They arrived in Barcelona having come second at the European Championships two months earlier. In their group they drew with Hungary and came second on goal difference.

Every coach has matches that they are most proud of. One  such match for me was ‘Australia v Croatia’ at the Barcelona WC-2003. In the wake of this game, the feelings that both the players and I were experiencing could probably be compared to that of a composer who finally creates a beautifully sounding symphony after spending a prolonged and difficult period creating it. In a perfect match for Australia, we won 10:6, to finish in the overall seventh position, being a very young team whose foundations were based upon the sport’s amateur domestic structure.

Many of the Australian participants had already had important wins at the junior world championships and major senior tournaments in the previous years and months. But that was an important milestone in our efforts of furthering the winning mentality and culture whereby the young Australian players have:

gained the invaluable experience of winning big time crucial matches at a senior level where a lot was at stake;

proven to themselves that any team – however formidable an aura it may have  –  can be beaten.

I believe it is an interesting game to watch particularly for young aspiring athletes, from that perspective as well as the technique-tactical skills displayed by the Australians.

The 2003 Australian team was not ready yet to play that type of water polo on a consistent basis and needed more time to consolidate its skills. But that and other matches during that period of our development proved that we were on the right track. We beat Croatia again at the Olympic games in Athens – 2004.

To view the Barcelona match, please press the ‘Videos’ tag above; I recommend that readers organize the time to watch the entire game to get a complete picture as to how the events unfolded.


Final standing at the 2003 world championships: 1. Hungary 2. Italy 3. Serbia and Montenegro 4. Greece 5. Spain 6. USA 7. Australia 8. Slovakia 9. Croatia 10. Russia 11. Germany 12. Romania 13. Brazil 14. Canada 15. Japan 16. China

Croatia went on to make top four at the Montreal-2005 and Gold at Melbourne-2007 world championships. (See the “USA v AUS January 4 at  Bondi Icebergs” post.)  Australia went in the opposite direction. Against the background of the team’s quality in the preceding years, Australia’s Montreal-2005 campaign cannot be described other than a complete disaster. The results and how the team played on home soil at the Melbourne-2007 WC could also be assessed as dismal.

I also watched the Australian team’s performances at the major international events in subsequent years. What I saw made me feel sorry for the young Australians, who had a proven record of serious achievements and were making a lot of sacrifices and putting in a lot of efforts, but who were let down by lack of proper leadership and poor administration of the sport.

At the Olympic games in Beijing-2008, Australia had the capasity and could and should have beaten Montenegro to progress to the top 4 position. The world championships in Rome-2009 and Shanghai-2011, where the team came 9th, did not show any breakthroughs in terms of either the results or at least one big time winning performance when it mattered. To this day, the team has not recovered the quality of performance and the results that a very young Australian team was displaying on many occasions before 2005.

Speaking about accountability, many of the people who are responsible for those failures are still wielding a lot of influence or occupying official positions in the Australian Water Polo’s administrative structure. They obviously do not feel that they are responsible for the years of unfulfilled time and efforts by many young athletes. This is primarily due to the manner in which the sport has been administered.

Hopefully, a breakthrough will be achieved in London and the efforts of the young Australians will be rewarded through a good result. Otherwise, it is not only the coaches who should be held accountable but the Board of Australian Water Polo too as is the case in other sports in Australia and overseas.

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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