SFI plots water polo’s revival with help from a Serbian Olympic hero

The Swimming Federation of India has solicited help from Slobodan Soro to halt the steady decline of the sport in the country.

Slobodan Soro is on a four-day visit to Bengaluru to help scout talent at the ongoing Senior Nationals.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

The last time India was a force to reckon with in men’s water polo, at least at the Asian level, was in the 1970s. After a gold in the inaugural Asian Games in New Delhi 1951, it claimed silver in 1970 and bronze in 1982, again in New Delhi.

But since then, the sport has been on a steady decline. The Indian men’s team hasn’t participated at a single Asian Games since 1986. The women’s team featured in the 2010 edition and finished fourth out of four teams, conceding 96 goals in three matches.

The Swimming Federation of India (SFI) has thus solicited help from a Serbian Olympic hero, Slobodan Soro, who won bronze at 2008 Beijing and 2012 London, to set India on the path towards redemption.

It perhaps helps that Serbia is the reigning Olympic men’s champion, U-21 World Champion and U-17 European Champion.

“The level is low, I understand the situation,” says Soro, who is on a four-day visit to the city to help scout talent at the ongoing Senior Nationals for two camps ahead of the 2022 Asian Games.

“Infrastructure is not that good. There are not many heated pools in India. Around the world, heated water is one of the basic things. But I see they are really enthusiastic. With some better conditions, the level of players, coaches and referees can all go up.”

‘Unique sport’

Soro says that the idea is to get someone from Serbia to start working with the junior team in India and help them adapt to modern-day demands. The sport, though eye-catching, is exhausting. Players can neither touch the floor nor hang on to the side walls, which means constant pedalling to just stay afloat. Then come the passing, synchronous team moves etc.

“It’s a unique sport. Different muscle groups are used during different times,” the 42-year-old says. “So, you have to learn specific movements and practice that muscle group. Even your Javelin champion [Neeraj Chopra] will find it tough to throw the ball more than 10m in the water.”

“The timeline of water polo from the mid-80s has changed. Europeans became professional and countries like India lost out.”

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Ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, Soro became a naturalised Brazil citizen and helped the nation finish eighth out of 12 teams. “I have some experience of trying to develop the game and making it bigger and better. We managed to do it in Brazil. After winning the first three Olympic games, all Brazilians were talking about water polo.”

“But India is different. Brazil already had sports clubs with water polo section. In India we need to make the base bigger, because you need quantity and quality.”

Soro also pointed to the need to find heroes that youngsters can look up to. “I started playing in [erstwhile] Yugoslavia after watching the team win gold in 1984 and 1988 Olympics and 1986 World Championship. Team sports have more influence on society. We have [Novak] Djokovic, who is the best in the world. But when our basketball or water polo teams win, it makes more impact.”

‘A lot to do’

Monal Chokshi, the secretary general of SFI, concedes that water polo and diving have been given “second-hand treatment,” and calls this engagement with Serbia, “a starting point.”

“If all goes well, we will have our team training in Serbia post March, ahead of the Asian Games,” Chokshi says. “We have 45 and 30-day camps and we will probably have Slobodan or someone he nominates coming for those camps before they go to Serbia.”

“Coaches and referees are also important, [but] we don’t have a technical plan in place. So now we are looking at this parallel development of coaches and refereeing. The level has to be very high and we want to see that we can do justice. We are far behind in these sports. So, there is a lot to do.”

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