Andrey Belofastov: ''Today’s competition in women’s water polo is God forbid''
The coach of Sintez Olympic Reserve Academy on the ''American factor'', Ukraine’s problems and new rules of water polo that make the game more dynamic
In early April, the women's national water polo team of Russia finished second in the Europa Cup, which ended in Italy. Second coach of the team Andrey Belofastov explained in an interview with Realnoe Vremya how his players had performed, how Holland and USA achieved a water polo boom and how water polo players would qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games. The ex-Sintez player, two-time Olympic medallist, honorary coach of Russia is now working at Sintez Olympic Reserve Academy combining work with the men and women's national teams.
''There is a boom of water polo in Holland plus state support''
Could you tell more about the sense of the Europa Cup and the value of participation in it?
The Europa Cup has been held for the second time already, we won silver medals in this competition last year, too. This tournament is valuable in itself. Moreover, we should note that the two international organisations – FINA and LEN, international and European federations – agreed that teams from our continent would qualify for the traditional World League according to the result at the Europa Cup. We were chosen among the three best teams, and Hungary will be there from Europe as host of the World League.
Apart from it, we realise that women's water polo doesn't have so many games, and these eight matches we played at the Europa Cup are good practice for us. We played two matches first, at home and away, and met Greece, Spain and Israel at the group stage. Then it was the final, which was in Italy, where we played twice. In the semi-final, we won Hungary but lost to the Dutch in the final.
Despite the very serious competition in Europe with strong teams of Hungary and Greece, Spain and Italy, the Dutch win more often. It's they who won the 2018 Euro.
There is a boom of water polo there, especially among women. There is plenty of clubs, about a thousand! Even if they are semi-professional, so to speak, this allows them to have a very wide range of choices. This allowed the Dutch to come back to the number of leaders and even take the leading position in Europe. There is no culture of ''elite sport'' there, which we have, but the women's national water polo team takes pride of place. This ''pride of place'' allows its players to get support at a state level. The country has so many top players that we feared they would begin to be pouched to other teams, same Italy, for instance, which has always been ready to strengthen the men's national team with foreigners. The Italian Water Polo Federation is powerful, with good financial support, they could have easily chosen this road. Fortunately, for us, they didn't do it and decided to limit to their own forces.
''Women's water polo doesn't have so many games, and these eight matches we played at the European Cup are good practice for us.'' Photo: fina.org
''The range of players who are able to assume the burden of leadership has widened''
Has our national team already had a change of generations?
We completed this process together with head coach of the national team Aleksandr Gaydukov after last year's Euro when we weren't among the medallists. Verkhoglyadova and Ivanova couldn't play due to health problems. As the tournament showed, Ivanova is a very valuable player when building the team's game. And we haven't managed to substitute her at the moment, though we've tried several water polo players at once in her role. Vakhitova is a very promising girl born in 1998 whom we count on in the future, at the moment there was no room for her at the Cup's final.
Though we managed to look at girls born in 1998-1999 at the Europa Cup whom I worked with as a coach of the second national team and won with them at the European Games. They've won all the titles at their level without me, including two victories at the world championships. Even if we almost didn't have much time to prepare for the Europa Cup, as we made up a team 4-5 days to the tournament, the new players showed they were competitive, managed to join the team. Moreover, we played another two matches at the group stage against Greece and Israel almost with the second team meeting the team from Kirishi halfway, as their experienced players were playing in Champions League matches at that moment. I will note that our range of players who are able to assume the burden of leadership has widened. There is no such thing as a couple of leaders and others are in fallback position.
''We tested the new rules''
We should pay tribute to our veterans in the national team, as experienced players are called up to the national team not for their previous merits, no, they are still leaders in many parameters, moreover, at the highest international level. They are both great players and fighters, without which it's impossible to be competitive at the current level. Back to the Europa Cup, I will note, by the way, that new rules were approved there that will be used to play water polo around the world.
KINEF from Kirishi is the leader in women's water polo in Russia. Why did the local sports club refuse the men's team?
Yes, KINEF women's team won the Championship of Russia 18 times in a row, it constantly delegates 6-8 people to the country's national team. The club's officials should be asked the question about the disappearance of the men's team. But it's very sad such a decision was made. The case is that it was a young, independent team that consisted of mainly its own pupils who still exist because they didn't refuse the children's water polo school. Strong players grew up in KINEF men's team, it was not a team created to end a sports career. By the moment of liquidation, it was one of the four strongest teams in Russia whose disappearance affected the level of the national championship. I want to believe we will avoid similar losses in women's water polo because our sport can't be considered as very expensive. In any case, the talks that someone has problems aren't heard now.
You work with the men and women's national teams. How do you manage to combine?
I watch women's team's games in recording, moreover, it's not a problem now. Yes, there is a problem with time, but what can I do? I want to thank Aleksandr Gaydukov, the head coach, in this respect, who permitted me to combine work with Sintez Olympic Reserve Academy, as well as officials of Sintez WC, in fact, who allow me to be absent to due tournaments of Russia's women's team, though there is no personal interest here, as women's water polo in Kazan isn't developed. But there is an understanding that job in the national team is very important, especially on the threshold of the Olympic cycle. How many coaches are there in Tatarstan who would be working with the national team and prepare for 2020 Tokyo?
''KINEF women's team won the Championship of Russia 18 times in a row, it constantly delegates 6-8 people to the country's national team.'' Photo: sportkinef.ru
''USA prepares players for itself and 'the rest of the world''
It should be noted that the qualification of the women's water polo team for the Olympics itself is like a feat. Apart from Europe and the favourite USA, Australia, Canada, China are among the leaders. It's nine competitive teams, while there are exactly nine seats at the Games, as Japan will be the tenth as host. When will the other competitors be known?
Two Olympic licences will be given this season: at the World Championships and in the World League. In case the USA wins one of the tournaments, we can be second in the other, which will also provide with a ticket to the Games. Yes, the Americans are now hot favourites, though they don't have a national championship, but the university championship allows to train very strong players. Moreover, not only for their national team, as America invited young talents from around the world, including Russia. Many of our girls have received proposals from US universities to go to study and play for local teams in the US university championship. Eight vacancies for free education are allocated to develop our sport in universities. To compare, men have just four free seats in university teams. Both Holland and Greece, by the way, enjoy the benefits by strengthening their teams with water polo players who have played in the US university championship.
By the way, I wouldn't call same Japan frankly weak like Brazil was at the Olympics at home. The Japanese players play like the men's team when three players attack, and three defend. If the whole team attacks them, always there is a risk to face a counter-attack and miss. Then we should keep in mind they are purposefully preparing for the Olympics at home.
Competition in our sport is huge, and there is a risk it will be even higher. As teams of ex-Yugoslavia aren't among the strongest, it's what we got used to in men's water polo. But it doesn't mean that same Serbia, Croatia or Montenegro don't develop women's water polo. They do, really do. Girls are slender, ripped who genetically and anthropometrically fit in our sport, as well as other team games in general. Basketball, volleyball, handball – they are very competitive in all team sports, men also have traditions in water polo and a strong school of coaches. They will reach our level with their youth, and it will be murder… Now they don't exist, and thank God, as we don't suffer from a lack of competition.
You were born in Kyiv, played water polo in Soviet Ukraine. Do you stay tuned for events in the homeland?
Of course, both in politics and sport. The situation is ambiguous. Choosing Petro Poroshenko as president of the country five years ago, voters believed he would do something good for people. Unfortunately, the opposite happened according to my talk with people who live there. I can see it myself visiting Ukraine once in three years. The quality of life has worsened, life has become more expensive, utility bills and food have gone up in price. Pensions remain at the same level, but inflation absorbs them. Undoubtedly, Ukraine wants to live in a different way. The question is when people who will put the people's interests at the forefront will come to power?