On The Record with Elvis Fatovic, Head Coach for Australian National Men’s Water Polo Team

Elvis Fatovic. Photo Courtesy: Waterpology

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

If there’s anyone in water polo who understands just how challenging the sport’s landscape currently is, it’s Elvis Fatovic. As a star player for Croatia, he logged more than 100 matches with the national team. First, when it was the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, winning a World Championship gold in 1989 and gold in 1990 at the European Championships. Then after 1991, when Croatia became an independent nation.

He was not part of a silver-winning effort by the Croatians at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, but—after ending his playing career in 2007—had the good fortune to be an assistant coach when Croatia struck gold at the 2012 Games in London.

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Since January 2013 Fatovic has been head coach of the Sharks, as the Australia national water polo team is known down under. His teams have finished respectably in international competition; ninth at the 2016 Olympics in Rio; eighth at the 2015 FINA World Championships and placed seventh in 2017.

The Australians and the Americans are often—uncomfortably—lumped together in the second tier of international polo programs, but Fatovic is focused on changing that. With an experienced team anchored by Richard CampbellGeorge FordJoe Kayes, Aaron Younger, all of whom are in Berlin, the Aussies have a chance to make their mark here against European competition—and separate themselves from the Yanks.

Swimming World spoke with Fatovic after his team’s game against Hungary in the FINA Men’s Water Polo World Cup 2018, where the Sharks got down 9-6 late in the game but rallied to cut their deficit to one and had a two-man advantage with thirty seconds remaining. The Hungarians were able to escape with an 9-8 win, evening their record at 1-1 in the group; Australia is also at 1-1 with a match tonight against the surprise of Group A, host Germany (2-0).

– Today’s game was entertaining until the end, when your team came back from three goals down in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie.

We lost the game in the first half. We missed too many chances, and then Hungary went to a three goal difference, which is very difficult to equalize. We need to avoid the mistakes that we made. Too early shots or decisions that we don’t need to make in that moment—they produced counterattacks. And Hungary punished us. We know that they are very dangerous in that.

This is just the second game. We have another hard game tomorrow with Germany. Everything is still on the table, so we’ll try to play our best tomorrow.

– Is this your only shot at qualifying the 2019 FINA Worlds in Gwangju, South Korea?

We probably have a little easier qualification on the road to Korea. We will qualify in the worst case situation through the Australia / Oceana group.

But for us this tournament is very important because we don’t have so many games as Europeans. They have so much more experience than we have. The majority of their players here were at the European Championship two months ago, so that’s huge experience. There was a long break between June, when we played World League in Budapest, and now.

We try to improve every game and to be better. Only with experience can we improve our game as well.

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2012 Croatian Olympic Gold Winner. Fatovic is lower right. Photo Courtesy: Inside The Games

– What is your reason for playing your back-up goalie Anthony Hrysanthos early in the tournament?

This is the first tournament like this when you have a smaller rotation—only 11 players, so that means if we [carry] another goalie, that doesn’t mean that next time we won’t decide something else. But then we only have three players in the rotation every game—it’s very difficult.

That was the decision today. We hope that tomorrow will be a better day for us.

– How do you look at the proposed rule changes and their potential in affecting Olympic competition?

It’s different competition for one very important reason: in the Olympics you play every second day and you have one day for recovery. Here we play every day and there’s no time for recovery. You don’t need to be too smart to make the conclusion that the last three days the pace of the games here won’t be so fun. After the second or third game the players become very tired because of the limited time for recovery.

There’s already been the decision about the 11 players for the Olympics. But again, it will be different when you have more time for rest. The players will be able to show much more and they’ll be able to show here after four or five days.

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Joe Kayes. Photo Courtesy: Total Waterpolo

– Let’s look at today’s scenario; you’ve got three guys rolled and two guys with two kick-outs and looking to tie the game and go to overtime. I this not a possible Olympic scenario?

It is a potential scenario. That’s something that will help all of us in water polo find what’s the best solution. It’s possible with the same rules even about exclusions is that’s something we need to increase [i.e. the number of exclusions].

On the other hand, if we start with a more physical game that’s something that we try to avoid, but at the moment, with 11 players it’s very difficult. Even last night when Germany played against Hungary it was even worse. I think that one team had 19 exclusions, the other one 16. It’s difficult to manage but for all of us this is a first experience.

– There are the dominant programs—Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro, Serbia—and all the rest. Is it possible the proposed rule changes will most benefit the rest of the world’s squads?

I don’t think so. We must know that in Europe at the moment is much, much stronger competition. And that’s the base for everything. Without that foundation, there’s no players who will fill the gaps in the national teams. Their national team players they have much more stressful games. In a stressful game, you can improve.

For the rest of the world, that’s the problem. We have a lack of the games on the highest level. For us that happens on every second year, which absolutely is not enough.

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Richard Campbell. Photo Courtesy: FINA

Maybe that’s some question for us; maybe we should do something for example with the Europeans have the European Championship should we do something on our way—for the rest of the world to play something.

We have more and more quality teams now. You have Japan, who is capable to beat many teams now. Then you have USA, which always have great teams. China has invested a lot. Kazakhstan won the Asian games.

I believe if we start to play something like that, if we involve also the young generation which also has the same issue—then we could be even bigger than the Europeans.

Then it will be easier to be competitive with Europe. Because the rules will not change. I think if we’re changing the rules to have more equality then we’re not on the right track. The skillful player will always be the skillful player and he can easily adapt to something new than someone with less skills.

In water polo generally the rules are not the biggest problem. I believe for us the biggest issue is how to promote [the sport]. For instance, last year was the world championship in Budapest. I don’t remember that anyone asked about the rules, because everything was what you need. Fantastic pool, great atmosphere—absolutely no one asked for the rules.

We may be looking too much in those rules to find something.

But some of the things [we try here] I liked. They increased the speed like 20 seconds after the corner… these are some things that all of us need to adjust to. but definitely to increase the popularity of polo the rules are not the most important.

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Loren Fatovic. Photo Courtesy: Waterpolo Development

– Your son Loren has made a strong impression here in Berlin. Will you face your son’s team in this tournament?

Maybe in the cross-over [on Friday].

– Have you faced them before?

Unfortunately, yes. [Laughs] And the questions is: what was the score? They beat us but okay Croatia is a silver medalist from the Olympics. With Serbia at the moment they are probably the biggest team, so it’s very difficult for us.

it’s good to see how he’s progressing, how he’s improving. But the club situation because he played for one of the best clubs in the world in Dubrovnik. There’s so many games in the last three years—one where they were champions of Europe, one where they were runner-up and last year where they were in the semifinals.

That’s a huge advantage for the development of players, especially because the club supports their players and that’s less pressure for his parents because they are in Australia! [Laughs]

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Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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