Although the World Football Championship will probably be the biggest sports event in 2010, sports fans in Montenegro are far more eager about the upcoming European Water Polo Championship. The success Montenegro’s national team and water polo clubs have achieved in recent years has ranked this sport as the country’s absolute favourite.
While Montenegro can boast of having had successful water polo teams and athletes for decades, the sport only really gained popularity since the country declared independence in 2006. During the era of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, when the Yugoslav Water Polo League was probably the best in Europe, Montenegrin clubs were always overshadowed by large teams from Belgrade, Zagreb, Split, and Dubrovnik. Still, Rimorac from Kotor managed to win the former Yugoslav League in 1986, while Jadran from Herceg Novi won the 2003 state championship of former State Union of Serbia and Montenegro and afterwards became Europe’s silver medallist.
In 2007, the national team of the newly independent Montenegro qualified for the European Water Polo Championship. Hopes were high, but a 13:3 defeat from Serbia in a match preceding the championship severely shook the confidence of team members and fans alike. Thus, when it was time to go to Malaga, Spain, where Europe’s greatest water polo athletes were gathering to test their mettle, the team opted for a low-profile departure – hardly anticipating they would take home the trophy. Their victory made Montenegrin and European sports history, for they were the first debutant team to win a title. Arriving home, the team were greeted as national heroes. Then followed the Olympic Games in Beijing where a medal managed to elude them, but the team did finish fourth, nevertheless proving that their success was more than beginner’s luck.
Team captain Veljko Uskoković says that the achievements of Montenegro’s national team can only surprise those who know little of the country’s sports history: “Montenegro’s school of water polo has existed prior to these victories and will continue to exist after them. Montenegro has been making its mark in water polo for decades, and our achievements, both present and future, are the result of the work of many generations. ”
Montenegro’s Water Polo League champion Primorac astonished all of Europe by winning the 2008 Champions Cup. Their victory in the semi-finals had already been considered an accomplishment against all odds, while in the finale the team faced Italy’s Pro Recco, Europe’s wealthiest and best team, and a multiple Cup title holder. To celebrate Primorac’s feat, the city of Kotor staged a great welcome gathering for the team that did such honour to their favourite sport. Team captain Nebojša Milić – who had already won a European title with former Yugoslavia’s champion Be?ej, told Southeast Europe: People and Culture about his emotions at that moment: “I’ve already won a European title, but when you raise a trophy in front of people from your own town, when you’re greeted by a thrilled crowd – it’s impossible to find the right words to describe [the feeling]. It was the peak of my career.”
Thanks to its multiple successes, Montenegro was charged with organizing the 2009 Men’s Water Polo World League. Supported by their fans and countrymen in their capital city Podgorica, Montenegro’s national team triumphed yet again. The World League crown was followed by the 2009 World Championship in Rome, where the national team faced their first true disappointment and placed ninth. Now all eyes are fixed on the upcoming European Championship in Zagreb, scheduled for Aug. 29 to Sept. 11, 2010.