January 14, 2020 – Continuing our ‘TCN Down Under’ series, Daniela Rogulj interviews former Jug captain and assistant coach to Croatia, and current Australia water polo coach Elvis Fatovic in Sydney.
On a sunny Wednesday morning, Elvis Fatovic and I met in the Bronte neighborhood of Sydney, in front of Australia’s famous Iggy’s Bread, owned by Igor Ivanovic of Belgrade. It was the Bronte Balkan experience, as passersby greeted us in Croatian and spoke of preparing sarma for Orthodox Christmas. We were served freshly-baked bread and hot coffee to complement the Bajadera I brought over from Split.
For a moment, I’d almost forgotten where we were.
After exchanging sentences mixed in English and Croatian, Elvis shared his life story about how he, a Croatian water polo legend from Cavtat, moved his life to Sydney to lead the national team of Australia.
Elvis hails from Cavtat, just 30 minutes south of Dubrovnik. Water polo is the pulse of that area, and Elvis grew up in Jug Dubrovnik’s youth system.
“That is the natural path. Cavtat is probably one of the smallest, most successful water polo towns in the world. For example, in the London Olympics, you had three gold Olympians from Cavtat. Sukno, Boskovic, Obradovic are all from the area.
In Cavtat as a kid, you have two options – one is to play water polo, and the other is to play in the brass orchestra. And I’ve done both, haha. But I thought that I was more talented in sport, and at some stage, you have to decide which way you want to go. It’s also common that the more talented players follow the steps of the successful players and move to Dubrovnik, so that is how I ended up in Dubrovnik. Water polo then was very big; we are talking about the ‘80s, a long time ago when Jug won the first European Champions League title. It was hard not to fall in love with the sport.
It was crazy to watch, and during that time, 4-5,000 people would be at every game.
Thankfully I had quite a solid career. It’s a dream for the majority of water polo players to play for a great club in your city, and I had that privilege.”
From Jug, Elvis played one season at rival club Mladost Zagreb.
“Yes, that was one season when a lot of things happened in my life. It was after the war, and Jug was at a good level but without a light at the end of the tunnel. It didn’t seem like something big was going to happen. Because of my career, I went to Mladost. Before that, I refused to go to Italy, and at the beginning of the ‘90s, I preferred staying in Dubrovnik, but then I decided okay, it’s time to take a step in my career. The best part of that was that I met my wife in Zagreb. Though she is not from Zagreb, she’s from Primosten. Not only did we meet there, but it was quite a successful time for the club, and I also met some of the greatest friends I could have, like Vjeko Kobešćak. After that season, my wife and I married and had kids.
Around ’94/’95, Jug started to build something great. It was the beginning of the Jug we have now.”
While Elvis played for Jug, they won 5 Croatian Championships and 6 Croatian Cups. He also led Jug to win the European Championship in 2001 and 2006, and won the LEN Europa Cup in 2000.
“The highlight was definitely winning that first European Championship. We played in the old pool, in front of 5,000-6,000 people. I can’t imagine it ever being so packed again. We played against Bečej, which was a Serbian club. In that period, they were an unbelievable team and a big rival. In two years, they didn’t lose a single game. We beat them with a buzzer goal, which I scored, and that was probably the highlight of my career.”
What was it like living in Dubrovnik in the middle of Jug’s success?
“It was amazing. During that time, athletes were like celebrities. Especially because Jug wasn’t so successful before, and that’s probably part of the reason why maybe even fewer people follow them now. Winning has become the norm, the people expect it, so maybe Jug needs to lose for a while in order to bring the people back, haha. But no one wants that.
At that time, the majority of the players were from Dubrovnik, and the people really followed us. When we played in Hungary, students from Zagreb would follow us – they’d even travel to Italy. It was extraordinary to be a part of that story.”
We switched gears to the Croatia national team, where Elvis had 128 appearances. Elvis spoke about the moments that stood out.
“To be honest, I wasn’t the happiest with my national team career because there was a huge gap. I didn’t start playing for Croatia until when I was almost 28, and that’s because of a situation when I moved from Mladost to Jug. But even so, I played two Olympic Games and we won the European silver, which was also great. I think, even as a national team player, I had more disappointment than greatness. Especially in the two Olympic Games when we were one of the favorites to win the gold medal. Here in Sydney, during the most crucial moments, half of the team had the flu, and we lost the quarterfinal game, and that was an enormous disappointment. As a player, you need at least six months to recover from that.”
Elvis finished his career as a player in 2007 and moved onto coaching. But was a coaching career always in his cards?
“It probably was because I captained Jug for ten years and was the right hand of the head coach. We always joked about the staff positions the senior players would take and more or less, everything happened that way. I was always interested in that job and one of the youngest coaches to ever lead Jug. I was the coach of the junior program for one year, and then immediately after, I became the head coach.
At the same time, as I became head coach of Jug, I became the assistant coach of Croatia under Ratko Rudić. It was a fantastic experience to work with someone like Ratko. It’s one thing when you are a player, another when you are the assistant, but it is completely different when you are the head coach. And I am so grateful that I had the chance to work with the best one. Ratko is the most successful coach in the history of water polo, and maybe not only water polo – perhaps of all sports. It was great to learn and see how the game is not only about the tactics; it is about many other things aside from that.”
Croatia water polo won the gold at the 2012 Olympics. Elvis was the assistant coach then.
“I believe that 2012 was not only about the summer when we won gold. It’s even more important for us, especially with our Croatian mentality, to look at what happened in January that same year. We played the European Championship and finished 9th. We lost so many games and were not performing well, and that was a huge disappointment, but it happened at the right time. We had seven months to set our goals and prepare, and if you ask me, that was perhaps the key to Croatia’s success.”
After a fruitful period as the assistant coach of Croatia, Elvis was asked to be the head coach of Australia. He moved to Sydney in 2013.
“For me, as a coach, I needed some time to adjust to everything, because it is entirely different here than in Europe. Europe and Australia have nothing common when looking at the sport, and to be honest, I didn’t expect much. The priority of the players is also different. The majority of them do not play professionally. I had to adjust the training, to read their priorities. It is also different here because there is a significant difference between the Olympics and any other competition, and I believe it shouldn’t be that way. In Australia, the Olympics are huge.
The most important thing for Australia is to keep consistency with the players. We managed that in the last couple of years and were able to deliver some great results, especially in the previous two years. We have become very competitive with everyone. I think there is still a considerable difference in the approach here and there are definitely a lot of advantages in the European teams, especially with how the national leagues are set up and how much time the teams spend together. If you try to explain to someone how it works in Australia, the majority won’t believe you. I am really enjoying working with the players here. They are a little bit different than us, so when they have a session at 5 or 6 am, they don’t complain, and they do it properly. They don’t just show up. I respect that a lot and I love working with them.”
Elvis has led Australia against Croatia multiple times since 2013. The first time was in the quarterfinal of the World Championships in 2013, while the two nations most recently met at the test series in Sydney last December. Elvis spoke about the emotions that come with facing his homeland.
“The first time was a bit weird and that was the game when we almost beat them in Barcelona. No one expected that. Croatia came as the Olympic champion and we lost in overtime. It was strange, but you are focused on your team, your performance, as that is your professional job, and from that point of view, that was the first time and maybe the hardest time. Things maybe changed a bit for me when my son joined the Croatia national team – and he always looks especially inspired when they play against us. But again, we beat them last year once, which was a great success for us as we beat them in the quarterfinal of the World Cup. If we talk about quality, Croatia is always in the top two, and they really showed us that in the World Championship this year when they demolished us, even though we were very keen to beat them that game. But okay, that was our bad game and their great game. I respect Croatia as a team a lot, but on the other hand, we will always try to win.”
Elvis is leading Australia to the Olympics for his second time. What are the expectations in Tokyo?
“I want to take it game by game, because if we say ‘we will win the gold’, that is too easy to talk about and a lot harder to do. On paper, you have many stronger teams. On the other hand, I believe the gap between the strongest teams (Croatia, Serbia, Spain, Hungary) and the rest of us is smaller. When there is the special pressure of the Olympics, I believe that anything is possible. I want us to keep progressing. 60-70% of our team has been together for the last 6-7 years, which makes a difference, and I just hope we can keep delivering the results we have over the last few years.”
All eyes are on the European Championships this month. Croatia needs to win the tournament qualify for the Olympics. What do they need to do to make this happen?
“There is just one spot for the Olympics to be won at the Euros. Three teams are coming without pressure – that’s Italy, Serbia, and Spain. Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro, and Greece are looking for that one spot. Especially Hungary, who is playing at home. Hungary has a pretty good looking road to the semifinal. Still, I believe that Croatia has a great team, a great chance, and even if they don’t qualify here, I have no fear because the remaining qualifying tournament is this March in Rotterdam, and they are too quality not to qualify.”
Three Croatian clubs are competing in the Champions League this season, while Croatian clubs always lead the Regional League. How does Elvis see the current state of Croatian water polo?
“Croatia surely has the best teams in the Regional League. The club structure is still one of the strongest. The only stronger league is probably the Hungarian league, which brings over a lot of international players. The structure and competition in Croatia is quite good, but the problem with European clubs is that they play too many games. In my opinion, Croatia has slowed down a bit in the development of the players, which I believe could be better. Some of Croatia’s junior and youth results in the European and World Champs are outside the top eight, which means that something is wrong, and something needs to change.”
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