Denes Kemeny: Not everyone can afford water polo

July 28, 2014


Hungary’s mens water polo team won a silver medal at the European Water Polo Championships in an exciting game on Sunday. Enthusiastic supporters cheered for the home team all the way through the finals until their team was stopped by the highly rated Serbs. Former team captain turned Hungarian Water Polo Association President Denes Kemeny appeared on ATV’s Egyenes Beszed with Olga Kalman to share his thoughts on the tournament.

How do you see this next generation national team. Is it heading in the right direction?

The national team has made finals four times recently, winning one those four matches. Our main objective is to win at the Rio Olympics and based on our performance I’d say we’re looking good at the moment. They played a very conscious game through the European Championship. Having a home team advantage with 6-7 thousand supporters cheering you on helps tremendously, but there are instances in which that can also act as a barrier. If we would have been able to hold a two point lead from the second quarter, then having the support of the fans would have definitely kept the team feeling more confident. They would have led in points all the way until the end.

Is it decided in their own minds?

Nobody forgets how to come back from behind in a game. But why does it work in some cases and not in others? There’s a player under that swimming cap, but he’s a person too. In that moment when a mistake is made and one is unable to recover, which is incredibly difficult to deal with in front of such a huge audience, the player starts to second guess the moves that come naturally and had been effective until then, because the confidence is shaken. He’ll give his opponent just a little more time, and that will have an impact on the final result. The most crucial thing is to make sure that the player’s state of mind is strong. Of course, it definitely helps if they’re already leading by two or three points. But this match wasn’t like that. The very same thing happened to the women’s national team in the quarter finals when their opponent took the lead by two to three points. Suddenly, the players start thinking about losing in front of 6 thousand people when that’s not even why they are there to play. If we had been leading the Spanish by two to three points from the beginning, the team’s confidence would have kept them ahead and the supporters would have pushed them all the way to victory.

It’s typical Hungarian thinking that before each of the last four matches I kept being asked how I think the team will do. Obviously, I said I expect four victories, but if even one match was, then I am sure everyone would talk about that one loss. Right now we’re talking about losses for both the men’s and the women’s national teams. All the while, we could be talking about what’s really deserving of celebration: twice as many people tried to get in than could be seated! We played really well in all our matches, and even those people who couldn’t make up their mind on whether they would want to attend the tournament back in November now found themselves trying to get their hands on tickets.

Is it true that every match is decided in its first few minutes, or is this only true in Hungarian home games? Is it their desire to satisfy the expectations of others that drives them to victory, or is it their love for the sport?

If a player or coach experiences success during a match, this combines with the cheers of support and gives them an even bigger boost. The loudest cheers can’t help if the player is frustrated, he can’t find himself and that causes even more problems. A team has an easier time coming back up from behind if the crowd is less active, of course the coach can help with that too, but that’s a different situation. Speaking from experience, I think that a home team that makes it to quarter finals and finals can perform to its best if it is already operating well going into the game. Our men’s team fought through some very difficult and close matches and it was only right at the end that they stumbled.

How difficult is it for them to come back from this?

Looking forward, I don’t think it’ll be difficult at all. These players are very aware of what they are capable of. They are well aware of the games they played before the finals – games where they performed very well – and they know what it took to be successful. International tournaments like this are incredibly emotionally draining. Two strong teams like those from Hungary and Serbia are capable of winning back-to-back tournaments. The lucky team is the one that experiences a setback in a match that doesn’t matter, or is capable of fighting through a difficult match to secure the victory. Every unsuccessful game that ends in a loss eventually strengthens the player by helping with self-reflection which can make them stronger so that they can get back into the right frame of mind. It’s impossible to stay perfect when you have been winning games nonstop for two weeks and have maintained that kind of confidence and quality of performance for so long. A lot of good can come out of a loss after a winning streak, it can really help put the team back up on its feet. There were Olympic games when we won all the games we played – it didn’t matter that I was showing myself all the mistakes I made after the game because we won anyway. By the time we had made it to the finals and were playing poorly, it took everything for us to pull ourselves out of a game. It’s incredibly difficult to win like that. They also have to look at how they were able to play and try to understand what that means for the future!

Do you think the timing was right for you to hand over the coaching position to Benedek Tibor?

If I had done it four years eartlier, he would have had to coach a team that had just won its third Olympic medal. He would have been under a lot of pressure in difficult matches. The fact that he had the opportunity to spend three years at my side at the international level helped him acquire a lot of experience. This helped to prepare him. But let’s admit it, after the disappointing London Olympics it was much easier for him take over. If I had handed it over later, it would have come at a cost to my health.

So was it a good idea? Why wasn’t the new start sufficient? What does Tibor do differently that makes it possible for this young team to perform in the finals?

There are players in this national team who were around when I was still active, but weren’t yet mature enough to push out the older players who weren’t in their best form but were still on top. The coach’s job is to put together the best possible team in the pool. These young players then matured so well over two or three years, and there was no question that they would play when the older players left.

I think you should probably ask their mothers. There are times, where for two or three years, you get a series of very promising kids coming in who can make up a star team – just like those I had the opportunity to coach. Conversely, there have been a few years when the national team wasn’t comprised of so many natural talents and the older players didn’t realize they couldn’t perform at the level they used to. Tibor was good at reaching out to those young players, who aren’t that young anymore, like those experienced players that who had played in Beijing – or even earlier – who were members of the national team. This is a very good group and that’s why we were able to play so well in this European Championship.

How significant is a mother’s worry when she hears about what’s happening under the water?

If a mother is worried about her son she can get try to step in quickly, but it’ll be hard to pull her son out a such a tightly bonded group. The boys are enjoying themselves in the pool and they quickly learn from the older player where the women’s changing room is, and how to take a peek inside it. If someone wants to be brave at a critical moment in front of the home team, he needs this too.

Is this sport really that difficult? What happens under the water seems to be a lot like boxing.

I’d rather compare it to wrestling. Water polo has always been a contact sport, but the changes in rules are starting to alter it to be more like basketball – and don’t agree with that. Water polo is a manly sport and it’s a contact sport – even for women – but you have to realize that these players shake hands after the match and then shower together, sometimes they even share the soap.

Sports can be expensive and they can definitely use financial support. TAO and corporate sponsorship have helped support sport – primarily soccer – but I’m not interested in whether you think this right, I’d like to know whether you the financial support provided to water polo is adequate.

Currently, I have no complaints with the amount of support provided to water polo through the TAO system. We are very aware of what grants the water polo association applies for and we are supportive of apply for grants when its justifiable. The financial support provided is enough to help cover the costs of the active member of club. But we have to be cautious because this money is coming out of the state budget, so we have to treat it as something that we won’t receive in perpetuity. We need to prepare for the harder times when we’ll need to rely on sponsors and the club membership fees which are paid by parents. Now is the time that we need to put that in order, those were the areas where we fell behind.

The club membership fees are not cheap, and no one has yet invented a profitable pool. Travel costs, equipment costs, pool membership – all of this costs money that needs to be raised. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford water polo. Many clubs continue to charge membership fees even though they receive state subsidies because once the subsidies are gone it will be very difficult to start collecting membership fees again from families.

I hope that these grants opportunities stick around in the future, and not because it means more players or suggests it’ll be easier to have a national team, but because these kids are in a good place when they’re in the pool instead out on the street. These kids will be healthy, they will go to the hospital and the pharmacy less. I’d be happy if this was where money is spent.

It’s definitely worth mentioning that our women’s national team also did a great job by achieving third place at the European Championships!

Congratulations to both teams! Thank you for your hard work and the memorable moments you gave us!