It was the beginning of summer, June 2003, when the European Water Polo Championships were held in the small Slovenian town of Kranj. As if it were today, I remember a conversation with a friend from Belgrade on the first day of the competition, even before the first match was started. The friend, journalist Dejan Stevović, a chronicler of Serbian water polo, told us: “Look out, we have one kid in the team. Left-handed, he is only 16 years old, a child actually, but he will be a miracle player. His name is Filip Filipovic.”
Honestly, we’d never heard of him before. But in that summer in Slovenia, we watched him for the first time. True, at that tournament, which Serbia won, Filip Filipovic got only a little playing time. He was a beginner, but a kid who was quite promising. Even in those rare minutes when he was in the pool, it was hard not to notice that he was something special, something different...
Those tiny details are not always simple to describe. There are some kinds of moves in sports that not everyone has, which is not just a result of learning, hard training. It was clear that this very young player was significantly different from the others, and it was especially amazing that he was only 16 years old. Only two or three years later, Filipovic became an indispensable part of the national team, one of the key players, more and more the leader of his team. Yes, our friend from Belgrade was perfectly right: the kid indeed became a miracle player.
Filip Filipovic in Rio 21016 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
In sport you don’t have to be Nostradamus to anticipate something, it’s just enough to watch and understand what you’re watching. And watching Filip in the water has always been a feast for the eyes, a privilege for anyone who loves sports and especially adores water polo. Filip turned into one of the best right wingers and has remained a superstar for more than one and a half decades. And one of the sporting icons in Serbia overall.
“People approach with a lot of respect”
When did Filip Filipovic play his best water polo? Or maybe the best of Filipovic is yet to come?
I am of the opinion that I have not yet had my final word. There will be post-career times for this issue when I will be able to see the zenith of my career more objectively. I still have big plans in water polo.
You have won 32 medals, 24 of them gold, multiple times chosen as the best player in the world, in Europe... You were an Olympic winner, world and European champion. You are one of the most decorated athletes in the history of Serbia. Can you take a peaceful walk through Belgrade without being stopped for an autograph, a photo? Do you enjoy popularity at home at the level of tennis star Novak Djokovic, basketball players Milos Teodosis and Bogdan Bogdanovic or footballer Aleksandar Kolarov? Do you feel like a star, are you privileged in some way because of that?
Of course I can. We are free and proud citizens of Serbia, regardless of the fact that we stand out with our results and achievements in the field of sports. I can really boast that so far I have had only the most beautiful experiences of that kind. People approach with a lot of respect, just wanting to spend a moment with you. And who am I to deny them such pleasure?
You are one of the few players, along with Slobodan Nikic and Duško Pijetlovic, who played in two epic sides of the Serbian national team. One at the very beginning of this century and the one in the past decade in which you are a captain. Which is the better team of Serbia? The one with protagonists like Savic, Vujasinovic, Ikodinovic, Sapic, and later Udovicic... or the current one, highlighted by you, Prlainovic, Pijetlovic, Aleksic, Cuk, the young Mandic?
According to the results, I don’t think it is at all disputable which team has been more successful. But this generation has not yet finished its era. My opinion, and it is only my opinion, is that the generation before us was perhaps the most powerful team in Serbia that we have ever had. When you look at the names and the reputation they enjoyed in those years, I think it’s a real miracle how they, or how we, missed out on gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. I gained a lot of experience and knowledge in water polo, but above all in life and interpersonal relationships, from those guys. I am forever grateful to them for the knowledge they were willing to share with us.
Filipovic scores a penalty shot at the 15th FINA World Championships 2013 in Barcelona ©Getty Images
“Age is not an obstacle, just an excuse”
After the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2021, many national teams will change generations, and that will probably happen to Serbia. Your country has been at the top of world for the last 20 years and that period has been marked by the two generations we mentioned. Does Serbia have a third triumphant generation or is there a minor decline in sight after 2021?
I think that as long as there is a cult of playing for the Serbian national team, we’ll not lack results. Fortunately, as you say, this upcoming third generation was already able to play at the last World Championships, already one more compared with all other teams. So when the young guys earn their place in the team and get their chance, I am convinced that they will use it in the best way. It is only a matter of time before the boys shine in full splendour. I have my complete confidence in them.
Were you worried that Serbia was left without a medal at the last European and World Championships?
Not at all! That is the result that was probably the most realistic picture of our situation at that time, and I am glad that we did not mask our shortcomings in matches at those tournaments by earning medals. Sometimes victories and medals can hide more than highlight shortcomings.
This year the world is living in the age of coronavirus. Many analysts point out that the coronavirus has reminded us what is most important in life, that people have become closer and that it is an opportunity for change. Do you really think this is the case or will we quickly forget everything and return to the previous rhythm of an accelerated life full of selfishness and the rush for material things?
I absolutely agree. We are fully aware of how much nothing in this world is worth anything compared with our family, our health and freedom that we enjoy every day. The main question is whether we as a human race have really become aware of that.
How much will COVID-19 change the world of water polo?
I think that a lot has already been changed, starting with the cancellation of the LEN Champions League through to the cancellation of almost all national championships. I am convinced that everything could have been played in the summer, where water polo belongs, under the open sky – and a little disappointed by the fact that it didn’t happen. With a little good will a format could have been found to finish all competitions in the water. Please note, water polo is one of the rare sports that is played in water full of chlorine!
To what extent did the postponement of the Olympics in Tokyo and the long break without training and matches affect older players, over 32-33 years? Has it shortened your career, do you need longer time to get back in shape than younger players?
It is a matter of the mind and I am ready to deal with new challenges. Age is not an obstacle, just an excuse. I liked the break actually, and now I wanted to jump back to the water again, to play, and I can’t wait for matches to start again.
Filipovic challenged by Italian player at the 14th FINA World Championships 2011 in Shanghai ©Getty Images
“Something needs to be done”
This year you ended your relationship with Pro Recco where you spent a total of nine years and won 12 trophies. Is this your favourite club and how would you describe it, because organisationally it seems far ahead of the rest of the water polo world?
In addition to the fact that this is the most successful water polo club in the world, Pro Recco is also a club that has introduced a lot of innovations in recent years in terms of organisation and marketing. These are not new things in sport, but in water polo they certainly are. And Pro Recco is the club that had the most courage to embark on something new like this. I must mention that none of these ideas would have been implemented if it were not for a man who had the feeling and faith that we would succeed in everything. Gabriele Volpi once again showed how much he loves water polo and how much he is ready to set an example by himself and invite other clubs to follow his example.
One thing is interesting about Pro Recco: the last European title for this mega-team dates back to 2015. Why? Why did Recco fall so often under pressure at the very end of the European season in the Champions League? Was the problem perhaps having too many superstars in the roster?
I will not have answers to some questions either. Many times I ask myself the same thing and believe me, it is not at all easy to explain this phenomenon.
You have been in water polo for a long time, you have experienced everything, won each title on offer, so you have the right to say something about this sport. What would you do to make water polo more popular, with far more spectators at the pools? What is water polo missing that handball has for instance, leaving water polo far behind in the past 20 to 30 years?
I have a lot to say. I would only deal with facts that are unquestionable. No need to look for culprits and point the finger. That’s the easiest thing. I think we need to work on solutions, and they are in front of us. Right now. We’ve just had the opportunity to gain all the public’s attention and to play water polo outdoors, in the summer, where it belongs, as I mentioned earlier. But the precondition for all this, for our long-term plan, is for us players to meet people from the world of water polo. The calendar is unsustainable, sport is unsustainable unless there are some changes. The rules change every three or four years, but the popularity continues to decline. Something needs to be done, a common effort this time.
Team Serbia celebrate their bronze medals in Budapest 2017 FINA World Championships ©Getty Images
“The high number of highly educated guys has remained”
What is your opinion on the subject of naturalisation of players in the whole of world sport, including water polo? Today it is not uncommon for players to change their national team almost as much as they change clubs.
I do not want to offend anyone with my answer, but again I think that the problem should not be sought in countries that use their rights. I do not support late naturalisation of players in any way. But as I mentioned, the players are not to blame at all.
Do you think that water polo is a big sport, a small sport or the biggest small sport?
Water polo is the first, the oldest team sport at the modern Olympic Games. I think I’ve said enough.
Water polo has long been talked of as an ‘academic sport’. Is it still like that?
I would like to believe that it still is. It is definitely a fact that the players are still seriously dealing with their education. Sport and even water polo have evolved, and our obligations have multiplied. But the high number of highly educated guys has remained.
One day, when you finish your playing career, where do you see yourself? Will you perhaps try your hand at diplomacy like (former water polo international) Miklos Gor-Nagy, who is now a diplomat at the Hungarian Consulate in New York? We are alluding to the fact that you have recently acquired a diplomatic passport of Serbia.
We will see, there is a certain desire for that invitation, but a diplomatic passport is certainly not the reason for that. Diplomacy is something that has interested me personally for a long time. I think I would have a lot to give in that area of life, too. Thanks to sport and what it has given me through all these years, I think I can represent my country abroad. But I also know from experience that these types of plans should not be determined in yourself too early. I will be ready in any case, so if the opportunity arises and the plans match, it will be a great honour and privilege for me.
Gold medalists Team Serbia celebrate on the podium at 2016 in Rio Olympic Games ©Getty Images
*This article can be found in the FINA Magazine. To access the online version of the magazine (2020/4) click here