Gloom in Montenegro after Olympic water polo loss

When the Red Sharks lose, Montenegro mourns.

The water polo team of this tiny Adriatic Sea country, the pride

of Montenegrin sports, lost 7-5 to Croatia, its wartime Balkan

adversary, in the Olympic semifinals Friday, triggering despair in

the ancient walled city of Kotor.

”This is a disaster,” Mladen Martac said as he watched the

game at the Vardar cafe in the city center. ”If it was football,

basketball, or some other sports, it would hurt … but this is

water polo, our beloved game.”

Montenegro reached the semifinals at the London Olympics along

with Italy and two other former Yugoslav republics, Serbia and

Croatia. Serbia faced Italy in the other Olympic semifinal later

Friday.

The quarterfinals demonstrated the region’s power in water polo.

Montenegro, population 625,000, beat Spain, population 47.2

million. Croatia, 4.7 million, beat the U.S, 312 million. Serbia,

7.3 million, beat Australia, 22.6 million.

Many doubted that after the bloody 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia,

which won three Olympic water polo titles, the states that emerged

could carry on the glory of the old communist country.

But many were wrong. Serbia has won three world and European

championships since 1991. Croatia has captured one world and one

European title in that time. Montenegro won the 2008 European

crown.

The phenomenon of water polo dominance is nowhere more striking

than in Montenegro, a picturesque southern European country nestled

between pristine rocky mountains and the turquoise of the

Adriatic.

Out of 13 Montenegro players on the Olympic roster, 12 come from

two small coastal towns, Kotor and the summer resort of Herceg

Novi, on the border with Croatia, where water polo grounds are

cordoned off in the waters that dot nearly all villages.

On Friday, old wooden goalposts and plastic line markers swayed

in the hot breeze and the waves of the Adriatic.

”It’s real rarity that so many world-class players come from

such a small area inhabited only by some 60,000 people,” said

Dusan Davidovic, a former player for Primorac Kotor, the 2009

European club champion.

He attributed the success to the ”old Yugoslav water polo

school.”

”That’s the school of improvisation, fitness and discipline,”

he said, adding that the tradition of tall and muscly Balkan men

has something to do with it.

”The ex-Yugo teams play with a lot of contact,” he said,

describing a sport that often includes brutal underwater wrestling

unseen above the surface of the water, and to referees.

War broke out in Croatia after it declared independence from

Yugoslavia in 1991, and 10,000 people died in the conflict.

Montenegrin troops took part in the fighting around the walled city

of Dubrovnik.

Lingering rivalry among the former Yugoslav republics is perhaps

best seen in water polo, which triggers national pride and

emotion.

”This is another revenge for what they have done to us during

the war,” said Mate Bacic, a Croatian fan in the nearby ancient

Croatian city of Dubrovnik. ”We are defeating them in peace.”