Andrei Belofastov: From USSR Water Polo’s Storied Past to Russia’s Promising Future

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The Russian women's water polo team at the 2016 Olympic Games. Andrei Belafastov is center left. Photo Courtesy: Tass

At 6 feet 5 inches, Andrei Belofastov is a giant of a man—and a bridge between the Soviet Union’s glorious water polo past and the bright future of what is now a Russian-only endeavor.

A member of the Unified Team that took bronze in the 1992 Barcelona Games, Belofastov spoke recently with Swimming World on the occasion of Aleksandr Kabanov’s death at the age of 72. Kabanov, two-time Olympic gold medalist (1972, 1980) as a player, was Boris Popov’s top assistant at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. He assumed leadership of the team that represented Russia at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

[Passages: Aleksandr Kabanov, Russian Olympian as Player and Coach, 72]

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Andrei Belafastov. Photo Courtesy: Russia Water Polo Federation

The Kabanov-led USSR squad’s win in the 1980 Moscow Games inspired Belofastov, then 11 years old, to pursue a spot with his country’s national team.

After 1992, Belofastov pursued a professional career until 2009 when he moving into coaching, He was initially attached to the Russian men’s national team program before making the switch in 2015 to working under Alexandr Gaidukov, head coach for the women’s team.

At the 2016 Rio Games, Gaidukov’s side captured bronze, the first Olympic polo medal for the Russian since Kabanov steered the men to bronze in the 2004 Games in Athens. A second-place finish in the 2020 European Championship in Budapest last January qualified the team for the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Aleksandr Kabanov passed away last week. One of the most decorated water polo players in Russian history, you played for him when he was an assistant coach with the USSR and the Unified Team.

Kabanov was a two-time Olympic Games [1972, 1980] winner and a great player. [The USSR] had very strong players [then]. I am from Kyiv, and my first coach was [Aleksei] Barkalov. He was one of the best players in the world. Barkalov and Kabanov and Aleksandr Dolgushin were three really great players.

I decided to play water polo after the 1980 Olympic Games, when the [USSR] won.

I don’t remember Kabanov as a player really well. He wasn’t very big but he played with his head—a very intelligent player.

When he stopped playing water polo he started to coach and was the coach at CSKA Moscow. Afterwards he was the coach of [Kinef-Surgutneftegaz] in Kirishi and coach of the national team. Men’s water polo team got a bronze medal in the Olympics. With the women’s team, he coached from 2009-2013 and won two European Championships.

We could say that Kabanov only worked with strong teams—like CSKA Moscow, Russian water polo men’s and women’s team. But over 20 – 25 years he was a very successful coach.

– What’s interesting is that he coached men and women at the highest levels; not such an easy feat. You’ve had the same experience.

It’s a very good experience for me. I started with young women’s teams—the junior national [players]. We won the European Junior Championship in 2015 in Baku [Azerbaijan] and the World Junior Championship bronze medal in [Volos] Greece. After I worked with the men—it was a very good experience for me.

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In the water with his players. Photo Courtesy: A. Belafastov

There is of course difference between the women’s and men’s teams, but for me you just do your job.

Greece just changed their coach with the former U20 coach of the men’s team [Theo Lorantos]. I told him at the 2020 World League Game in Kirishi in February: after [coaching] women you will be able to work anywhere. It’s a really important experience.

Now I work in Kazak with the men’s team. On the national team I work with the women for the Russian Water Polo Federation.

It was the same situation for Kabanov. It was a great pleasure for him to work with women because it’s a different experience—and the Russian women’s team was very strong when Kabanov was the coach. He won a lot of tournaments with the men’s team and then as coach of the women’s team.

It’s a good experience, and I’m very happy that I had this possibility to work with both women and men.

– You also have a history with Tibor Benedek, the great Hungarian player who passed away last month at the age of 47.

I knew him really well. The first time I saw him [was] 1989 in Narbonne when he came with a young Hungarian team for the world championship in France. At that time I played for the junior national team of Russia—he was an amazing player, one of the best.

[Remembrances of Tibor Benedek: Water Polo Great Taken Too Soon]

I’m upset because he was 47 years [old] when he died. For me, and for the water polo family, it’s a tragedy.

– One of the best players ever for Hungary—and now he’s gone.

1992, 1993, 1994 and 2002—four times he was the best player for Hungary, and one of the best players in the world. [Later] he was coach of the Hungarian national team. He won the World Championship in Barcelona in 2013, so he started [his coaching career] really well.

After the Olympic Games in Rio he said Hungary’s team did not play well and left the post as coach of the national team. He then worked with Ujpest [UTP] as the general manager.

– The Russian women qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in January at the European Championships—and now they have to restart their training due to the Coronavirus.

All the players have [had] a holiday. We will start preparation in August because there is no possibility to do the training camp abroad—so we gave two months free to our players.

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Photo Courtesy: A. Belafastov

The situation is very strange because after the European Championship we had a good possibility to play much better. We spoke with Adam Krikorian [about] coming to the United States in July for common training with [American players] before the [Tokyo] Games.

Now, nobody knows what will happen. It’s summer and there’s no tournament, there’s no possibility to have a good training camp. The [Russian] men’s team starts July 5th and the women’s team starts 10th of August.

We had an invitation [to train] with another European team but now we don’t know if we will have the possibility to go abroad. There’s [currently] no possibility to fly.

It’s a very strange situation.

We have a group of young, very good players—2000 – 2003—who will be [invited] to our training camp. With Head Coach Alexandr Gaidukov we will try to be a good team because we have good players. But, four months without practice—we didn’t see our players—okay, we contact them, but it’s not the same.

There is no tournament in this year I think; we start to play World League maybe in 2021. Eash team will only play a national championship—okay, we need to do training with another team, But, with the coronavirus, we don’t know if we can fly abroad—to Greece, to Spain, to USA.

There is one thing for us which is much better; we took this ticket from Tokyo. Imagine, another 10 – 12 teams need to play a qualification tournament in January 2021. This is a crazy situation.

 

– 1992, when the Unified Team represented the former Soviet republics, was a strange Olympic year. You were on the men’s water polo team that year; does it seem like the coming Olympics presents similar challenge for Russian polo?

We had a really strong team for [1992] Olympic Games. We won all five tournaments. When we came to Barcelona we wanted to do our best.

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Aleksandr Kabanov. Photo Courtesy: Russian Water Polo Federation

We lost the semifinal against Italy; one goal difference. They win [the gold]. We beat a very good USA team [8-4] for the bronze medal. We were satisfied to beat this team.

After the Olympic Games I think about another thing; there is no USSR country—there was no Russian republic. I played abroad in Zagreb. I would like to have continued the national team but it was a strange situation in Russia after 1992.

Only when Kabanov came the Russian team start to play much better. With Kabanov the Russian team has the possibility to win one time; the semifinal against Hungary [in 2004, a 7-5 loss].

Maybe as a coach I have the possibility to win something—okay, there’s the USA team—but [Tokyo] will be interesting for sure.

We will see.

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