MONTENEGRO’S BRGULJAN HOPES IT WILL BE FOURTH TIME LUCKY FOR WATER POLO TEAM IN TOKYO
13 July 2021
The eyes and expectations of Montenegro will be on Draško Brguljan at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Not only has the national team’s water polo captain been selected to carry the country’s flag at the Opening Ceremony, at age 36 he will also be responsible for passing the torch to his younger teammates as he competes in his fourth — and likely last — Olympic Games.
And then there’s the small matter of being considered one of the country’s best hopes of winning a medal this summer.
No pressure, then.
Fortunately, Montenegro’s water polo team will arrive at the Games in peak form, having booked its ticket to Tokyo at the Olympic Games Qualification Tournament in February, finishing first ahead of juggernauts Croatia and Greece, whom they beat along the way.
“That was a big deal for all of us,” Brguljan says of the tournament. “For a country like Montenegro, which is extremely small in population, it is a great thing to qualify for the Olympics in any sport. Since this is our fourth Olympic Games in a row, I think it is proof of how strong water polo is in our country. Defeating great powers such as, above all, Greece and Croatia is an indication that we are doing very well in one small base of players that we have.”
Montenegro has been competing as an independent nation at the Olympic Games since Beijing 2008, which were also Brguljan’s first Games. Agonizingly, the water polo team fell just short of the podium at the last three editions of the Games in a row, losing the bronze-medal match each time.
“It was very frustrating,” Brguljan says of the back-to-back-to-back fourth-place finishes. “For us it is a great thing that we came every time to fight for a medal, but in the end we failed. Maybe we didn’t deserve it, maybe we had too much desire, I don’t know exactly. But I know that like every time so far, we will fight to the last atom of strength to get a medal in Tokyo.”
This year’s team differs significantly to the one that competed at Rio 2016. Only three players from that Olympic Games remain, and in addition to being younger, the team also plays much faster, with more moves in attack, and a stronger, more aggressive defense.
Perhaps most importantly, the team’s belief in itself is sky high after a string of confidence-boosting performances that include a bronze medal at last year’s European Water Polo Championship in Budapest.
“That match for the bronze medal is one of the biggest we played, because we were losing by 4 goals, twice, against a national team like Croatia, and in the end we won,” Brguljan says. “This happens very rarely and is a great incentive for us, because now we believe that with one big job we can beat everyone.”
Despite the positive mindset and excellent form, Brguljan still doesn’t consider Montenegro to be among the group of favourites at Tokyo 2020. He regards Serbia, Hungary, Croatia and Spain as the teams to beat due to their star power and the fact that they have played together for many years. He does, however, place his team in the second tier, along with Italy, Greece, Australia and the USA, and believes that on any given day, any one of the teams can be victorious.
“We are not in the circle of 3-4 main favorites for the medal, we do not have names on paper to be,” he says. “But my opinion is that we can play equally with everyone, and I hope, this young team will take medals in big competitions in the future.”
The recent exploits of the team have not gone unnoticed. Last December Brguljan was named Montenegro’s best athlete by the Montenegrin Olympic Committee (MOC), while he and his teammates were named team of the year along with the women’s handball team.
He called the awards a “privilege and an honor” at the time, and claimed that any one of his teammates could have been named athlete of the year instead of himself.
There is a saying in team sports that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. And that is certainly a sentiment shared by Brguljan, who has nothing but praise for his teammates, who he claims makes his job as leader so easy.
“Being a captain is a very nice thing, especially in a team that always wants a good result,” he says. “When you have guys like this by your side, being a captain is the easiest thing in the world.”
Having appeared at Beijing 2008 as a 23-year-old, Brguljan has gone on to accomplish an impressive amount over the last 13 years. And now at the age of 36 he feels that Tokyo 2020 will be the perfect opportunity to bow out the sport on a high note, with no thoughts of completing another Olympic cycle to take part in Paris 2024.
“I don’t believe it, I think these are my last Olympics,” he says. “We have a lot of young players and sooner or later they should be given a chance to prove themselves. And I am glad that we created a team that will be able to play without [35-year-old] Aleksandar Ivović and me as the oldest, that was our goal.”
We look forward to watching the changing of the guard this summer and wish Captain Brguljan and his team the best of luck in reaching the Olympic podium in Tokyo!