Favourites dethroned

At the Olympic games in London the Russian fans expected a lot from their team-sports – mainly from the women – in handball, volleyball and water polo. But it was the men’s teams who brought home medals. The volleyball team won Gold for the first time in the Russian history. Whilst the baskeballers won Bronze also for the first time (due to the past USSR results do not count). Now they are basking in the well-deserved glory and are still being congratulated. The unorthodox decisions by the volleyball coach, Vladimir Alekno, during the match against Brazil in the final, have become legendary. As well, a lot of superb epithets are addressed to the basketballers – their American coach, David Blatt, has managed to make giant-killers from a mediocre team.

Now, changes among the coaches of the women’s teams are expected. Volleyball experts are forecasting coaching and player changes in the National team. One of the best players in the world, Ekaterina Gamova is likely to retire. The Head coach, Sergei Ovchinnikov, whose team lost the quarter-final match in five sets having failed to convert several match-balls, is likely to be dismissed. The National hand-ball coach, Evgeny Trefilov, is in a similar predicament. His ‘vigorous’ game-management style has been entrenched in the Russian sports’ history ‘folklore’. And despite the fact that the players are trying to defend their preceptor, there are plenty of causes for changes – take, for example the defeat in the quarter-final match against South Korea.

It stands to reason that, under the circumstances, with upcoming Coaching Councils’ decisions and possible resignations, nowadays conversations with those coaches are not easy. There is one exception though – Aleksandr Kabanov. His team also lost in the quarter-final. And that became the sensation of the women’s water polo tournament. The Russian girls went to London aiming to win Gold but their aspirations died in the last seconds of that game. At the beginning of the last minute, the Russians virtually defended in a woman-down situation but still were unlucky to concede a goal when the ball ricocheted into the hand of an opponent. Seconds later, in a similar situation, they scored a much needed goal but that was a second after the final siren came on. The result was only sixth place.

Now, after several weeks since that heart-braking defeat Aleksandr Kabanov was very gracious in agreeing to speak with us. He arrived 15 minutes earlier, but became sad when the conversation touched upon that unfortunate match.

Everyone around us was saying that we were ‘favourites’ – Kabanov says reluctantly. But we know for sure that when obvious favourites fall, it is always more painful. Nevertheless, we still believed that we could beat Hungary. Indeed, the match started well for us: after the first two attacks we were leading 2 : 0. But then we did not convert a penalty and that is when the problems started; the score became even; we made some mistakes and ‘locked’ ourselves in a ‘trap’ when everything was left at the mercy of ‘Her Majesty Luck’. But the main thing is that Hungary managed to ‘dictate’ us and we allowed them to do it. Our advantage in class did not help.

Kabanov recalls the opponents’ tough style of play even though he considers it primitive. That a ‘favourite’ has lost is not the worst outcome of the tournament. The fact that the most athletic and physical teams reached the medal rounds is. That is likely to bring changes to the vector of development of the game of water polo, according to the coach.

I appreciate that physical strength and simplicity are decisive factors nowadays. But I still teach my team to think. It is a GAME, not a contest of trying to SINK each other. I hope, that if there is another coach, they will not be ‘locking’ the players in the weights gym, but will allow the players to think. I have always been against the tactics when physicality is ‘the main argument’. But, admittedly, that is what my team was missing in London. We were a touch ‘softer’.

Kabanov openly says that he might be dismissed.

I may be dismissed or may be left in this position. This current team is very promising. In London, we were one of the youngest and there is a lot of potential for the future. It will be a shame if the ‘rebuilding’ process will start again. Of course, we do not have the luxury that existed during the Soviet Union era when we could have at least two almost equal teams in strength. Of course, at present, there is no such level of competition for a position in the team but still there are many talented athletes. As far as results are concerned, at any tournament there can be accidents and medal-winning cannot be guaranteed.

Kabanov did not give a direct answer as to who could be his successor.

There are capable people who can work at the National level and achieve success. I won’t give you their names but there are several of them. If I am no longer coach, I have no doubts the National team will be in good hands.

Are you tired?

It is not so much tiredness. It is more resentment. We put a lot of effort and had high hopes. Unfortunately, luck was not on our side. I still have a lot of energy and – given an opportunity – will prove that we were on the right track. At the same time, I realize that the odds are against me. The sixth placing in London is certainly a failure. On the other hand, there should be the understanding that many teams in the world are trying to emulate us. They use our exercises, our combinations – some do it well.

In recent times, the Russian Olympic medals in various disciplines have been brought by female athletes. Not in London. Kabanov admits that to manage and ‘feel’ a women’s collective is not always easy. ‘You cannot enter their changing room just to get the ‘mood’ of the athletes and that is very important even during the matches’. Among others, there is an opinion that one of the reasons for failures was close proximity to a shopping mall near the Olympic village which was a distraction for women.

Aleksandr does not think so.

Shopping for the girls is like doping. In their free time they went wherever they wanted. However, we had no problems since everyone knew why we came to London and what our main goals were. Nobody was distracted. We went to a shopping mall for the first time only after the quarter-final match in order to somehow relax the girls. But that loss will become a nightmare for a long time.

Source: ‘Izvestya’ newspaper
Translation: Erkin Shagaev

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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