Heading to Montenegro for one’s first water polo tournament makes for a torrent of experiences. But how does one distil and remember this adventure? With a mixtape!
As a newcomer to the sport taking in the European final of the FINA Men’s Water Polo World League, here’s a mixtape from my time spent at SC Moraca Recording Studio, a sports venue located along the banks of the Moraca River in Podgorica, Montenegro.
Even for the uninitiated, it soon becomes clear this within the heartland of water polo country. Especially when national pride is on the line and team places in this summer’s global Super Final lay in the balance.
From the moment one makes their entrance into the arena, the audio experience of elite water polo is quite unlike any other. From the team introductions and the sounds emanating from spectator’s stands, from the referee’s piercing whistle work to the sound of players thrashing and churning water – all in the hopes of placing a water-resistant, multi-coloured Mikasa ball into a white net at opposing ends of a pool.
It’s immediately clear one hasn’t stumbled into the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. It’s loud.
Growing up in the U.S. where even before the ‘World Series’ the Star-Spangled Banner is the only song before a sporting event starts, the playing of multiple national anthems before international team sporting events is a piece of chocolate cake before the main course.
It’s immediately apparent the pride players have when hearing their nation’s symphony play as a preamble before the opening whistle and mad dash to secure the game’s first possession.
No other anthem hits quite the right notes like Italy’s. It sounds sophisticated and boisterous at the same time.
In a country with as much history as Italy, it makes sense that their national anthem would answer to many names. Whether you call it ‘Il Canto Degli Italiani’ or ‘Inno di Mameli’ or ‘Fratelli d’Italia,’ when you hear that chorus – Let us unite! We are ready to die; Italy called! – this is no sombre call to arms. It’s about a team united under one flag and one dream.
When a team needs a pick me up, in the variety of a rollin’ thunder truck, there’s no teammate you’d rather have the ball in their hands before the game clock goes dark than Dusan Mandic. And if you’re not a Serbian national in international play, a manic Mandic shot can make any team’s hope of advancing further into the tournament fade to black.
So powerful is Mandic’s shot that a crossbar once broke from his firing at the goal at a major tournament. Since then, the structure is no longer constructed the same way. And that’s the loving truth.
Watching water polo up close for hours, you see action – both above and below the water.
Above water, there’s plenty of manhandling going on. And below? There’s plenty more. For those growing up on the post-punk sounds of the ‘90s, Superchunk pairs ‘unusual’ guitar tunings with bold applications of noise to hit a similar tone to water polo’s powerful play.
If this music doesn’t speak to you, water polo’s bruising jostling and physicality probably won’t, either.
The sport’s so physical, the most severe infraction a player can earn from referees is simply called “brutality.”
The FINA rules of water polo mention brutality 35 times. The simple act of swimming merits is mentioned only 16 times. Got it.
The referees walk along an elevated line above each length of the pool, whistles permanently affixed to their lips. While there are plenty of whistles called throughout the game, the tolerance before getting a brutality call is high: a player must strike an opponent with malicious intent.
Water polo play rarely merits this call – especially so when the stakes are as high as they are in Montenegro.
Look, I hear you: “Coldplay? Really?”
The hardest part of putting this mixtape together is making it fit with a certain, if eclectic, flow throughout. Chris Martin’s bridled sound doesn’t mix with the rest of the tape, just like you don’t drink pumpkin-flavoured lattes on a hot summer’s day while watching water polo. This mixtape is a work in progress, just like my newcomer’s status to developing a deeper understanding of water polo.
It takes time to find and appreciate all the grace, precision and strategy of a new sport being played at its highest level as a newbie. There are layers of learning between playing and pushing for the tiniest positional advantages. Learning all these nuances is something that only comes with time.
Song-by-song, this is by no means the best mixtape ever put constructed. This is the mixtape I deserve on this trip. Greatness is earned.
“It was very tough and very beautiful to play in front of our crowd.” – Dejan Lazovic
Even among the quiet confidence top athletes show while performing in pressure-filled situations, water polo players display a sense of calmness. That’s what made it so interesting for Montenegrin Dejan Lazovic to acknowledge the pressure he felt playing in front of his fans in the nation’s capital.
After dropping behind 5-2 early, Lazovic and Company were able to rally past France and hold on to win, 11-10. For his efforts, Lazovic earned FINA Player of the Game accolades.
If you ever had the need to shake it like a Polaroid picture, water polo is the part of the aquatics family one would likely like to party with. Keep them on your Friday night speed dial.
With TikTok helping push deep cuts from Nirvana albums back into the Billboard 100 for the first time in over two decades, Nirvana’s a sure thing to make the cut here as the anthem from my teenage years.
One of the coolest things was seeing the kids milling around outside the stadium every night, waiting to see their water polo heroes up close and personal before they boarded the busses back to the team hotel. The kids are going to be alright.
It was an unseasonably warm August 1990, on one of New York City’s hottest years on record when LL Cool J released this, his magnum opus.
The lines from one of rap’s most bankable beatmakers still stand the test of time, especially: ”Don't call it a comeback, I been here for years.”
Keeping with the family feel of water polo, there was a former Croatian national team player calling the games for Croatian television. Just seats away is Team USA’s Maggie Steffens, running the event’s statistical efforts, just as she has done throughout 2022 for both the men’s and women’s FINA Water Polo World League events.
Look for Maggie – the reigning FINA Female Water Polo Player of the Year – to be back in the pool this summer with her teammates as the Americans look to extend their unprecedented run of success at the 19th FINA World Championships and FINA Women's World League Super Final.