Montenegro promised so much in 2021 and failed to deliver at the Tokyo Olympic Games after so much success in the first part of the year. Dusan Matkovic was part of the new wave of players who relished the limelight and now must help pick up the pieces as the FINA World Championships and European Championships highlight 2022, just two years out from the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
Playing alongside some of the legends of Montenegrin water polo, explosive 23-year-old Dusan Matkovic (above right with Italy's Pietro Figlioli) has learned a lot in his short professional career.
“First of all, they all such amazing guys and very, very helpful with what I needed. What I learned from Aleksandar (Ivovic), in particular, was just amazing — how he enjoys the sport, like a little kid. I look up to him and try to make it work for me,” he said.
Playing alongside Ivovic and veteran players like Stefan Vidovic, Marko Petkovic, Uros Cuckovic, Slaven Kandic and captain Drasko Brguljan, Matkovic was among a group of six youngsters fronting the biggest water polo stage of all when they attended the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Just being named to the team was everything he had ever wanted since a little kid. “It was unreal. To be honest, I get chills when I remember that moment when the coach called a meeting and said who would go (to the Olympic Games).
“I have dreamed the Olympics since I started playing water polo. I was so thrilled and happy.”
The year 2021 was almost a fairy tale start for Montenegro, beating Greece for the Olympic Games Qualification Tournament in Rotterdam, Netherlands and then downing United States of America to claim the FINA World League Super Final in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Montenegro was pumped for the Olympic Games in Tokyo and everyone was touting a medal of some colour.
It started well with a 15-10 win over Australia, but then an 8-6 loss to Spain, a 13-8 loss to Croatia, and a 19-12 win over Kazakhstan, left the team in fourth spot and a face-off with Group A winner Greece. Greece turned the tables on Rotterdam and won 10-4, which sent the team spiralling to the 5-8 play-offs, again losing to Croatia (12-9) and finishing, at least, with a 17-16 shootout victory over world champion Italy.
“We had high ambitions for the Olympics and it was a shame we did not follow them through. When you play the qualification tournament, my older colleagues said it was the hardest tournament there is and to get a gold medal there and get a gold medal in the World League, you naturally have high expectations.
“It was very sad not to confirm our dreams at the Olympics. I can’t tell you what went wrong. The team was amazing from beginning to end. We were training everything 100 per cent. All the pieces were not put together, not because of us. Our stars did not align properly. Playing the Games, I had a feeling we were not that far away from winning every single game. When you look at the results, they tell a different story,” Matkovic said.
It will be a different team this year and Matkovic hopes that they will come together in time for the FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary this June and the European Championships in Split, Croatia in August-September.
“Obviously, after the Olympic Games, we built a new team for Paris 2024. Most will be young players like I am. There are just one or two older than us. We know each other well from junior national teams.
“We will have a shot at both of these championships this year. We will see how that goes. We will not have any problems along the way with injuries that will put us off, I trust. We have a lot of potential and that is the fact. It’s up to us to use that potential and make something out of it.”
With eight seasons under his belt with his native Primorac Kotor club team, Matkovic said it was like a family. “Here we have in our first team, 15-16 guys and that’s it.”
As a youngster with an eye to the future, Matkovic is looking for chances outside of Montenegro.
“To be honest, so far I didn’t have an opportunity to go somewhere outside Montenegro (foreign clubs), but obviously when you have coaches and other clubs watching you, it gives you an extra level of motivation and hopefully in the near future an offer might come.”
He feels that as it currently stands at Kotor, the opportunities to play Champions League and other European competitions are not there for him. However, if the situation improved, he would be willing to stay.
“Obviously, it’s very important for a player my age to have very strong games like I would have in Champions League. It’s also about me growing up as a person. It would be the first time away from my family. It’s very important to live on my own and not have someone cook your food. You need to do it yourself. Just mature.
“So far, I think I have. There’s still lots of space for improvement and maturity in playing sport.”
The whole Olympic experience and his short time with the national team have seen him mature as a player and display that excitement that gained the world’s attention in Tokyo, let alone his 10 goals.
“I think I became much more confident, because growing up I didn’t always have that level of confidence that I have now. I’m very happy I’ve succeeded in that. I focused on that and everything came naturally.
Matkovic downplays his scoring ability. “Water polo is a very specific sport where the player scoring the most is not necessarily the best player. I like to focus on other aspects rather than scoring the games. The vast majority (of my team) played very good defence.
“It’s not easy to score with your own individual qualities; 80 per cent of the time it’s teamwork and I was at the end of the chain. I think the team is mostly responsible for that.”
And his final word about the Montenegro team: “Support us. We need much more support and fans; enjoy the sport and cheer for us,” Matkovic said.