Building bridges over troubled water

Branko Krivokapic Rijeka & Kragujevac

The stories of two generations of Olympic water polo players reflect changes in sport and society in the lands of the old Yugoslavia.

Zdravko-Ćiro Kovačić in Rijeka, May 2014

Photo: Branko Krivokapic

For the French writer Stendhal, who visited Rijeka in January 1831, when the town was part of the Austrian Empire, "its warmth and position were magnificent". But it was also "the final point of civilisation".

For Zdravko-Ćiro Kovačić, this Croatian port is simply the town he loves.

Should you wish to soak up the early morning sun in the garden of the old-fashioned Hotel Continental, you might well meet him there. His steady movements conceal the many years his slightly bent back is carrying. He complains about the pain in his legs. And legs are most important in water polo, the sport to which he gave so much.

"I wish everyone could get out of sports all the good things that I got," he says softly.

One of only two surviving members of the generation that won Yugoslavia's first Olympic water polo medal in 1952, Kovačić is a witness to how sport in the Balkans has changed according to the political climate. The story of water polo in this region, where it is far more popular than in other parts of the world, is also the story of wider social upheaval.

Kovačić is a Croat by birth and a cosmopolitan by choice. "Our dear segnore Ćiro," his fellow citizens in Rijeka call him, with language that reflects the town's long history of Italian influence.

He is among the oldest living Olympic medallists in the Balkans. His words bring back to life numerous people, places and events... Many have been inscribed in the story of his life over 89 years.

"It makes me sad to think of all of my friends who are gone," he almost whispers as a teardrop rolls down his cheek.

Kovacic in his heyday as a world-class water polo goalkeeper

Water polo was a fixture of the Balkan sporting scene throughout communism and the nationalist wars of the 1990s and it remains so now, in an era of slowly improving relations between nations of the former Yugoslavia.

In October this year, clubs from Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro, whose national teams were all among the top four at the London Olympics, began competing in a joint league for the first time in decades.

From water polo to Apollo

Through all the changes over the years, the relationship between Kovačić and his former team mate Dragoslav Šiljak has always been strong, unaffected even by great distance.

Šiljak moved to the United States in the mid-1960s and became a distinguished electrical engineer, building an academic career and working on the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo space programme - the only scientist from a communist country to do so.

Dragoslav Siljak, as featured in the Fall 2012 edition of Santa Clara Magazine

Photo: Charles Barry

A Serb, born in Belgrade 81 years ago, Šiljak now lives in Saratoga, California. He still fondly recalls the exceptional generation of water polo players to which he belonged.

"All of them had strong personalities. I have great memories of them. The team captain, Ćiro Kovačić, is still my captain," Šiljak says.

 The pair first met in the early 1950s and both were selected by Yugoslav coach Božo Grkinić for the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. Kovačić was an experienced goalkeeper, the leader of the team. Šiljak, still a teenager, was its youngest member. He was also the only player from Serbia in a side dominated by Croats.

"Croatia had a long tradition in water polo. I came to the preparations determined to learn how to play well in that environment," Šiljak recalls via email.

 There were plenty of people from whom he could learn. Two years earlier, the Yugoslav team had won the bronze medal at the European Championships in Vienna.

Brotherhood and unity

Sports were considered an important tool for social integration in Yugoslavia after World War Two, which had been especially complex in the region as it included elements of a communist revolution, a brutal Serb-Croat conflict and fighting among people of the same ethnicity.

"Team sports in Yugoslavia served to demonstrate that it was possible to develop a successful multiethnic and multicultural society based on the ideas of socialism, that the concept of brotherhood and unity was working," says Ivan Djordjević, an anthropologist at the University of Belgrade.

'Brotherhood and unity among nations and national minorities' was the slogan of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia led by Josip Broz Tito.

 "Brotherhood and unity - are there any words that are more beautiful?" Kovačić asks. "In essence, these words symbolize the philosophy of sports in general."

 Even in that era, some ethnic tensions still lurked below the surface. In his early days as the only Serb in the national team, Šiljak says, there were certain "nationalist challenges".

"I ignored them, because the support of the majority of players was always positive. As time passed, relations were smoothed out, and today I cherish only unforgettable memories of that time," he says.

Nine Croats, one Serb and one Montenegrin made up the Yugoslav water polo squad that arrived in Helsinki in July 1952 to take part in the XV Olympic Games.

Silent footage from the 1952 Olympic water polo semifinal between Yugoslavia and Hungary

"We were hungry for everything. In our country we had no tropical fruits, no candies, no chocolate... Nothing," Kovačić recalls.

"We drank litres of orange and pineapple juice... The lady who worked in the kitchen warned us that was not really healthy," he says.

But his team-mate Veljko Bakašun replied: "Don’t worry, ma’am. Finland is in the far north, Yugoslavia in the far south. These are southern fruits: we drink these juices back home like water."

In the pool, the team notched up six wins and two draws to take silver - Yugoslavia's first ever Olympic water polo medal. Along with rowing and football, water polo was one of only three sports in which the country medalled in Helsinki.

Helsinki success started Balkan tradition

Socialist Yugoslavia began its long tradition of Olympic water polo success by winning silver at the 1952 Games in Helsinki. The country went on to win a total of three gold and three more silver medals in subsequent Olympics and never placed lower than fifth.

Since the collapse of the old Yugoslavia, Croatia has won one gold and one silver medal in men's water polo and Serbia has won two bronze medals. Serbia and Montenegro won silver and one bronze when they competed as a single state.

Only Hungary, with 15, has won more men's water polo medals than Yugoslavia and the states to emerge from it, which have won a total of 13.

That was the last time Kovačić and Šiljak played together at the Olympics. Four years later, in Melbourne, Kovačić led the national team to another silver medal, and retired from sports in 1957. Šiljak, who missed the games in Australia due to an injury, played again in Rome in 1960. After that he devoted himself to science.

Siljak and Kovacic (together in the front row, left) with the rest of the Yugoslav water polo team after winning the "Trofeo Italia" in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, 1953

‘My people, my problem’

The players of this generation remained close, however. Starting in 1983, at Kovačić's suggestion, they got together every summer, bringing along their families. Their last gathering was in Klagenfurt in Austria in 1990. They agreed to meet in Belgrade the following year. But it was not meant to be.

Just as the Berlin Wall was being torn down, the peoples of Yugoslavia started building up walls of their own.

On 13 May 1990, a fight between the football fans of Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in Zagreb's Maksimir stadium was seen as a symbolic burial of the Yugoslav state, a harbinger of the war between Serbs and Croats that would begin the following year and last until 1995.

Sports, having been used to build bridges, were now exploited to dig trenches. Hard-line politicians embraced hooligans. Football terraces became hotbeds of nationalism.

"The 'nationalisation' of the political space was most easily promoted and achieved through something everyone was familiar with," says Djordjević from the University of Belgrade.

Churchill’s observation that "the Balkans produce more history than they can consume" became a hideous prophecy. Bosnia and Kosovo also descended into conflict.

Six years after war between Serbia and Croatia ended, the Croatian city of Dubrovnik hosted the final four matches of water polo's European Champions League. Kovačić was a guest of honour at the semifinal between local team Jug and Serbian champions Bečej. Soon after the match began, local fans started chanting: "Kill the Serb!" Kovačić immediately got up and left.

During that period, Kovačić explains, Serb sports fans in Belgrade used to chant "Kill the Ustasha!" - calling Croats by the name of the fascist regime that ruled the country during World War Two. But for Kovačić, that was no excuse.

"You see, if somebody goes insane some place far away, that's not my problem. However, if my own people go insane, that's my problem. That's why I left."

Successful history

Together with football and rowing, water polo is the oldest team sport played at the Olympic Games. First played in mid-19th century Britain, the game is now popular almost exclusively in Mediterranean Europe, Serbia and Hungary.

The world's toughest game?

In water polo, two teams try to score by throwing the ball into their opponents' goal. Each team consists of six players plus a goalkeeper. No player except the goalkeeper is allowed to handle the ball with both hands. The game is divided into quarters of eight minutes.

Players tread water throughout the game and need huge amounts of stamina and strength to compete at the top level. In rankings compiled by the sports website Bleacher Report in 2011, water polo was rated the world's toughest sport - ahead of Australian rules football and boxing.

Men's water polo was first included at the Olympic Games in 1900 in Paris. It has featured in every official summer Olympics programme since then, apart from the 1904 Games in St Louis, where a water polo tournament was contested but only among American teams.

Women's water polo became part of the Olympic programme in 2000 at the Sydney Games.

Even in Balkan countries which regard it as a national sport, water polo cannot boast masses of players or huge crowds at matches. Croatia, which won gold at the last Olympics, has only 37 registered clubs. The fact that the country has about 12 times as many fishing clubs shows that other recreations are far more popular.

Serbia, the European champion, has 46 water polo clubs - a small figure when set against its 2,096 football clubs.

But the sport has a record of success in the region and millions of people get fired up when big international tournaments come around.

The two water polo clubs that have won the most European trophies, Mladost Zagreb and Partizan Belgrade, come from Croatia and Serbia respectively.

What makes water polo so strong in the Balkans? Success breeds success. Once Yugoslavia started winning titles and medals, people in the region were keen to win more. Being among the best in the world is good for national pride, no matter how globally popular the sport.

In Serbia in January 2012, some 2.74 million people, more than a third of the population, watched television coverage of the European Championship final from Eindhoven, where the Serbian national team narrowly beat Montenegro.

That same year, in August, in the squares of Zagreb, Rijeka and Dubrovnik, tens of thousands of fans turned out to greet the Croatian national team that won Olympic gold in London.

Two comrades

Among the 13 water polo players whom Croatia celebrated was Damir Burić, a good natured, two-metre-tall 33-year-old from the city of Pula. Four weeks later, he signed a contract with Radnički, a club from the Serbian town of Kragujevac. This made him the first player from a Croatian national sports team to play for a Serbian club after the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Damir Burić, in action for Radnički Kragujevac

Photo: BIRN

A Croat in Serbia? It may not sound as romantic as an American in Paris, or as sophisticated as an Englishman in New York. But it was not dangerous, despite the history of conflict between the two nations.

"What does it mean to be a foreigner in a foreign land? To feel awkward? I don't feel like a foreigner here," Burić said in Kragujevac this past summer. "After all, we speak the same language."

Some Serbian and Croatian linguists would dispute that assertion. But the languages are at least so similar that Burić needed no interpreter to understand the praise coming his way from his club-mate Aleksandar Ćirić, a former Serbian international and winner of three Olympic medals.

"An exceptional person and an excellent player," the 36-year-old Belgrade native said of Burić.

Aleksandar Ćirić

Photo: aleksandarciric.com

Ćirić, who has a thin and relatively fragile figure for a water polo player, is a sports globetrotter. He has played for seven teams from five countries.

As they smiled and put their arms round each other's shoulders to pose for photographs at the Kragujevac pool, no one would have guessed that 11 years ago they played on opposite sides in a match with such a violent conclusion it is the most notorious in the history of the sport.

Croatia faced Serbia and Montenegro, a team dominated by Serbian players, in the final of the 2003 European Championship. To add even more symbolic weight, the event took place in the territory of another former Yugoslav republic – Slovenia.  

Smoke on the water

The championships began unremarkably in early June. The two national teams even stayed in the same hotel as they made their way to the finals.

"The overall atmosphere and relations between the members of the two national teams were quite normal," recalls Dejan Stevović, deputy editor of Belgrade's Sportski Žurnal newspaper, who covered the tournament.

But a perfect storm was brewing. The host venue of Kranj had a significant Serb population of around 2,000. The Croatian capital of Zagreb is only 170 km away and Croat hooligans saw an opportunity to cause trouble. The Slovenian organisers underestimated the danger.

On June 16, the day of the final, some 3,000 Croats, mostly football fans, arrived from Zagreb.

"These hooligans had no interest in water polo whatsoever, they had no idea what water polo was," says Dean Bauer, a journalist with the Sportske Novosti daily in Zagreb who was also in Kranj.

"The only reason they came was to wreak havoc, to tear down half the town and look for Serbian fans to fight."

They found about a hundred Serbian supporters at the outdoor swimming pool. Around 2,000 spectators were inside the venue while about 1,000 more gathered outside. The whole place became a powder keg.

There were offensive chants and nationalist slogans, the usual accompaniment to sport events in the Balkans, and around 250 policemen struggled to keep a lid on the tension.

In the pool, however, things remained calm.

"There were no problems, no physical duels or punches. Nothing outside of what could be expected in any other final," Burić recalls.

Ćirić confirms: "The attitude of the players was within the limits of fair play, there were no punches or provocations."

Burić and his team started the last quarter leading 7-4. But Serbia and Montenegro staged a dramatic comeback to win 9-8 in extra time and claim the title. Then fans of the "Barracudas", as the Croatian team are known, decided to show their teeth.

"All hell broke loose," says Stevović. "They started throwing rocks at everyone who was in the pool."

Not only rocks, but also chairs, bottles, smoke bombs... amid all the smoke, both teams' players were equally in danger. With them was Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Goran Svilanović, who further enraged the hooligans by jumping into the pool to celebrate the victory.

One rock hit Serbia and Montenegro's goalkeeper, Nikola Kuljača, on the head. Blood seeped into the water.

Ćirić was also a victim of the violence.

"In the chaos, trying to get away from the mob, I slipped on the edge of the pool. I injured my cruciate ligament in the knee and I had to have an operation," he remembers.

Belatedly, by using force and tear gas, police managed to subdue the hooligans. The epilogue: fourteen arrested offenders, and medals awarded in private at the hotel.

Crowd violence at the final of the 2003 European Championship in Kranj, Slovenia

"Balkan" reaction

It was not long before the other side responded in kind. The 'rejoicing' of Serbian fans back in Novi Sad and Belgrade included setting fire to Croatian flags and attacking the Croatian embassy. Croatia's government protested fiercely and its foreign minister cancelled a visit to Serbia and Montenegro.

Politika in Belgrade, the oldest daily newspaper in the Balkans, published a lengthy article on these incidents under the headline: "As Balkan as it gets".

"One cannot but wonder whether sports matches between these two countries will ever become just that, simple sporting events. From where we stand right now, we do not see many reasons for optimism," concluded the anonymous author.

The riots also intrigued the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

"Had this happened a few years back, maybe we could have witnessed the first 'water polo war'," the newspaper said in a commentary.

Famously, El Salvador and Honduras waged a brief armed conflict known as the Football War in 1969 after tension rose over a match between the two nations. But Serbia and Croatia did not return to arms over water polo. Relatively quickly, the sound and fury were replaced by much calmer tones. Apologies from both the Serbian and Croatian side followed.

The two national teams met again a year later at the Olympic Games in Athens and played a match in a friendly atmosphere, without a single incident.

Calmer waters

A decade later, it appears the era that seemed so distant to the Politika commentator has arrived - when matches between Serbian and Croatian teams are normal sports events.

Mladost from Zagreb and Radnički from Kragujevac organised a series of warm-up matches in May to prepare for the final phase of their national championships.

In October this year, three Serbian clubs joined seven Croatian, three Montenegrin and one Slovenian team in a revamped Adriatic League. For the first time in 23 years, teams from Serbia and Croatia are playing in a joint water polo championship.

The games between the national teams of Croatia and Serbia are now frequent and, in Burić's words, free from the "other dimension". Burić says he even has a soft spot for some Serbian teams.

"Many of the Serbian national team members are my friends, so it's natural that I like their team better than some other rivals," he says.

Transfers between Serbian and Croatian clubs are also becoming routine business. After two seasons with Radnički Kragujevac in Serbia, Burić has moved back home to play in Croatia, for the Primorje club in Rijeka. Radnički have signed another Croatian player, Josip Vrlić.

Once there was brotherhood and unity, but now it is gone. After years of turbulence, relations between nations of the former Yugoslavia are gradually normalising - albeit with flare-ups such as the clashes at October's football international between Serbia and Albania.

In water polo at least, cooperation between peoples has moved from the ideological to the practical domain.

"Sports, arts, culture - these are the things that always connected us. And they will continue to do so," Ćirić declares.


Branko Krivokapic is a sports journalist with the TV Vijesti television station and Sportski Žurnal newspaper in Montenegro. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Fellow Bio


Branko Krivokapic

Branko is a sports journalist with the TV Vijesti television station and Sportski Žurnal newspaper.


Topic 2014: Generations

This year’s annual topic is Generations. Think of a powerful story that you have always wanted to report, and link it to this theme while crafting your proposal. Remember, it is better to have a strong central idea that is loosely linked to the annual theme than to have a weak idea that is strongly linked to the theme.