“I don’t think your Olympic champion in javelin could throw the ball more than ten meters,” Slobodan Soro jokes, attempting to explain why water polo is nothing like any other sport India plays. Soro, a two-time Olympic medal winner with Serbia’s water polo side, is on a four-day visit to India.
You can see where he’s coming from with the joke. The demands of his sport are among the toughest, in essence a survival exercise – doing the egg-beater kick for over 30 minutes under water, feet not touching the pool floor at any point, swimming efficiently, shooting and passing with eyes (goggles aren’t allowed) and lungs full of water while sneaking blows and braving tugs and punches and trying not to drown. It’s not for nothing that the sport’s most famous match ever is nicknamed “blood in the water.”
The Swimming Federation of India (SFI), admittedly, “failed at earlier attempts” at resuscitating the sport in which India were Asian Games gold medalists six decades ago. They recently decided to give it another shot. It started with getting into talks with the Serbian swimming federation and sending national players over to the water polo powerhouse country ahead of the Tokyo Games.
The former goalkeeper of Serbia won bronze at the 2008 & 2012 Olympics, was invited to come over and watch the ongoing senior national championships in Bengaluru to offer feedback, identify players from the various state teams to put together a probable Asian Games squad for a camp starting in December and chart a pathway for the sport to find its feet. There are also plans for the national team to train in Serbia ahead of the Asian Games next year.
“It’s more or less what I expected…the level is low,” says Soro, “I can understand why. The infrastructure isn’t so great here. Around the world – in Europe, US, Australia, heated pools are a basic requirement for water polo. I used to hate going into the pool on days when the heating went off, but here players are enthusiastic.” In this part of the world, it’s what water polo players do through the year – train in non-heated pools. There are roughly just 10 competition-quality heated pools across India and the sport itself is without surprise, at stage zero in the country.
Rules in the sport have undergone frequent changes and Indian players have struggled to keep up – continuing to train according to the previous regulations. “My idea now is that once I go back, someone who works with juniors in Serbia should come down and start training players here in the basics of the sport,” he says. “There’s very little time for the next Asian Games. We are perhaps a few years behind. But we can at least try to win a few games at the competition, improve the quality of play, quality of refereeing and quality of the organization. The sport needs all three to push ahead.”