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Russia: Is there a way back to the elite?

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Two-time Olympic and two-time world champions: that is the long-past. In contrast: they took part in only one of the last four editions of the FINA World Championships (in Kazan, as the host team), that is the recent past. The Russian men’s water polo team was very successful in the Soviet era (roughly the second part of the 20th century), but in the last 10-15 years they have been far away from the world’s elite. At least, however, they have managed to qualify for the 17th FINA World.

Water polo has changed a lot in the last couple of decades, but there are nations whose national teams are still among the best ones in the world, like Hungary, Italy and the independent states of the former Yugoslavia. Russia, however, have not performed well recently.

In the second part of the 20th century the Soviet Union men’s team was really succcessful. If we talk about Soviet water polo players, those, who are not so familiar with this sport, may principally think of the Blood in the Water match at the 1956 Olympics, where Valentin Prokopov of the Soviet team hit Hungary’s Ervin Zádor, whose eye was bleeding after the incident. Nevertheless, the truth is that the Soviet team became one of the best teams of that era.

Although they won two silver and two bronze medals between 1956 and 1968, they had failed to win the gold medal at the Olympics until 1972, when they finished in first place! The squad of the first Soviet golden team, led by head coach Anatoly Blumenthal, was: Gulyaev, Sobchenko, Akimov, Dreval, Dolgushin, Zhmudsky, Kabanov, Barkalov, Shidlovsky, Melnikov, Osipov.

A year later in Belgrade, in the first edition of the FINA World Championships the Soviets finished second behind the old rival Hungarian team, but at the 1975 event in Cali they hit back and claimed gold ahead of the Magyars, winning their historic first gold medal at the World Championships.

They were the best team at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow as well, and they won another gold medal at the 1982 FINA World in Guayaquil.

The Soviet era, however, was drawing to its end, and in line with that the results of the men’s water polo team were getting weaker and weaker. The Unified Team, representing the Commonwealth of Independent States, finished third at the 1992 Olympics, and since then the independent Russian team have taken part in the major international events.

In the 90’s and the early 2000’s the Russians still belonged to the elite, winning silver at the 2000 Olympic Games, bronze at the 2004 Olympics, two bronze medals at the FINA World Championships and one bronze at the European Championships, but they have failed to achieve a notable result since the Athens Olympics.

They have not qualified for the Olympic Games since 2004, and they took part only in one of the last four editions of the FINA World Championships. That was in 2015, when Russia hosted the event…

The hollow point was 2012 when they even failed to qualify for the European Championships.

In any way soever, it was a positive surprise that they finally managed to qualify for this year’s FINA World Championships, so they will take part in the 2017 event in Budapest.

What are the reasons for this setback? Russian team sports have strengthened a lot in the last two decades, a lot of money have been pouring in different clubs, men’s water polo, however, has been an exception, they are financially not so strong any more.

Regarding the 17th FINA World Championships, the Russians will be considered outsiders in group D against against Croatia and the Team USA, so they will have to fight hard to go through in third place against the gradually improving Japanese team.

Russia men’s water polo team at the FINA World Championships

In the Soviet era:

Two-time gold medalist (1975, 1982)

Silver medalist (1973)

Semi finalist (1986)

After the Soviet era (Russia):

Two-time bronze medalist (1994, 2001)

Placement at the 2015 World Championships: 14th