Dejan Savic: A boy from Miljakovac on top of the world
Famous water polo player and current selector for the representation of Serbia (which he led to victory in all representative competitions) speaks with 011info about growing up in Belgrade, his favourite spots, the advantages of living in our capitol city, his career as a trainer and the decision to lead Red Star “out of love” and dedication to work and family.
Dejan Savic started training water polo, he says with his trademark smile, because of his “crooked back, flat feet and excess weight”. Banjica and the water polo club Partisan were the logical choices for this man who grew up in Miljakovac. Born in 1975, Dejan grew up in 80’s Belgrade which he feels had been the best years of this city.
DS: Belgrade as Belgrade was going through maybe it’s best days back then, not because I was aware of that or because I was a kid looking at everything through rosy glasses, but also from the point of my older sister’s view who was living the “New wave” and experiencing the city that was alive for 24 hours every day. Belgrade was built up mostly in the seventies when everything came into existence – the “Culture center”, “Mostar”, “Gazela”, “Terazije tunnel” and so on. The then Mayor Pesic (Branko, auth. note) was a true man of Belgrade, as well as everyone else coming in from the side who felt like they were from Belgrade and Djoko Vjestica, Dusko Radovic and others.
What has marked your childhood?
DS: Us from Miljakovac, the so-called edges of the capitol would always say we were going “to the city”. You take a bath, pick your best suit and let’s go. This involved walking from Slavia to Knez Mihailova street. There were no cars like now and not everything was accessible. We knew there were burgers either in Slavia or near the Moscow hotel and of course there was “Nislija” near the Palilula market. This was when cafes flourished and people stopped ordering Turkish coffee, but rather had espressos. Taverns were real taverns and not the imitations we have today. Today any place that gets some checkered table cloths calls itself a tavern and people don’t go there to listen to music, but so they can post it on Facebook.
Then the 90’s came and with them some harder times...
Belgrade remains a big village to this day and the 90’s have made it into a caricature which remains even today. Lawless construction, kiosks in every corner, no urban planning...there are still remains from that terrible time today. When I hear young people today say “you’re so lucky you lived in the 90’s” I think to myself “god forbid”. Not only because of poverty, sanctioning and so on but also because of the poor choices in music and fashion.
You’ve given us interesting insight in the last decades of the 20th century. Now we are well into the second decade of the 21st century. What’s better about Belgrade today and what should it have kept from older times?
DS: Urban planning! To build what the city actually need, not unnecessary things to just distract people. Realistically the eighties were a carefree time where everyone looked into the future and a better tomorrow, while the nineties were riddled with war euphoria and general misery. Then we entered the two-thousands which were just a false hope and now we’re experiencing a collapse in everything.
Right now people basically can’t see a good future, so they keep going back to the past. What’s most interesting in the whole thing is that they aren’t realizing how quickly they’re losing their dignity. Belgrade today...basically there’s only Belgraders, the streets, cobblestones and some other things. Belgraders are slowly losing their identity because not everything is in the singing fountain and “Belgrade in bread and water”.
When foreigners come to Belgrade they notice that when it comes to the urban plan and architecture Belgrade isn’t like some of the other cities in Europe but the city enchants them and magically draws them in to visit again. What is it, in your opinion, which brings foreigners to Belgrade?
DS: Belgrade isn’t what we would call urbanistically beautiful. It is a city that has been torn down so many times and it wasn’t always built back up evenly. Realsocialism has surely left a significant mark and above all modern artists come to Belgrade seeking inspiration in this uneven world. Belgrade itself has never lost its soul. It became a bit worn down in general, but the spark is still there. Basically it’s the freedom that our city gives us. We are still not in the EU, even though we are trying to impose the laws that are valid in the EU, many of which are catastrophic, people feel free here. Rock ‘n roll isn’t dead in Belgrade. Belgrade has traditional folk music and modern folk music, techno music and classical music – something for everyone to love and look forward to. I am sure that all foreigners who come to Belgrade tell all the best stories to their friends who have yet to come. This is why foreigners have a much better image of Belgrade than they used to and I am sure that their great expectations are always met and it never disappoints.
Sometimes they come without any expectations and then they fall in love with Belgrade even more.
DS: Aboslutely! On the other hand, even though Belgrade can be expensive for people living here, for most foreigners it’s just right, maybe even cheap. When you compare Belgrade to other cities in Europe, it gives far more for far less money. Maybe Berlin can rival it in some ways there, but Belgrade is definitely an exception.
Do you think Belgraders have an advantage compared to people coming from other cities?
DS: It’s because Belgrade gives many advantages compared to other cities in Serbia. In our country maybe Novi Sad can come close to what Belgrade is, but it’s still no comparison because it’s a much smaller city. If we look at some other things, I find it very annoying when Belgraders don’t accept people who moved in from the side, even though we’re supposed to be an open city. They probably don’t understand that Belgraders can go somewhere where they will be the outsiders. Belgraders are Belgraders no matter where they are. It’s not the same principle like elsewhere, in America for example, where someone is a New Yorker the second they move to New York. Some people forget that even though they’re from Belgrade, their roots come from elsewhere. The freedom which Belgrade gives is its advantage.
When you were playing abroad, did the fact that you grew up in Belgrade help you?
DS: I never had a problem being anywhere because I am adaptable by nature, as well as curious. I always explored the cities and cultures that I encountered so I was always ready and, as I said, adaptable.
During your player career, you played in Spain and Russia. Now, as the selector for the water polo representation of Serbia, you often travel and spend a lot of time abroad. Do you have a ritual for when you come home to Belgrade? What is it that you miss the most?
DS: Yes I do. During my taxi ride home from the airport I’m always wondering “Oh my God, where do I live?” (laughter) I’m not joking, I really am. I never thought about it seriously, but now I have a family, I have children and I return to them and I can’t wait to do that every single time. On the other hand I have my tavern and I’m happy to go there, especially since it’s right in my building.
What is it that you enjoy the most in the city?
DS: I love 25th of May because that’s where I live. I like the Sunday mornings, the morning calm when everyone is asleep. It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining or Belgrade’s trademark grayness is in effect. I just love Sunday mornings in Belgrade and I love driving in empty streets. My kids usually have somewhere to be and I drive them and then I really enjoy looking at empty streets and just look around the city. I don’t know if it can be called a ritual, but I like doing that.
What makes 25th of May so special?
DS: The view! The view from 25th of May calms me so much. Whenever I needed to make an important life decision, professional or otherwise I’d do that by being alone with that view of the river.
Does that mean that you like Danube more than Sava?
DS: I love Danube but I equally love Sava because my buddy Risto Maljkovi has a tavern on Sava where I really like to visit. Rivers give you a sense of calm, water sooths me at the very least.
Does that mean you also love the seaside?
DS: I don’t actually like the sea. My wife knows that. Going to the seaside has never been a good vacation for me. I prefer going to a place where I’ve never been, just so I can explore. Like Lisbon for example. But, if I do have to go to the seaside, I’ll go for the sake of my wife and children, to fulfill their wishes, though I don’t swim a lot.
A reminder – in 2009 Dejan was the assisting coach for the university representation of Serbia. In 2011 he became the coach of the water polo club “Red Star” and won the League of Champions in the very next season. In that same year he also took charge of the senior representation of Serbia.
Those who follow water polo and who’ve known you for a long time were not surprised by your decision to become a trainer. Was it difficult to start in that career?
DS: It wasn’t too difficult for me because I mentally prepared to become a coach while I was still playing. I wrote down some training plans and learned from myself above all. I had exceptional teammates and this is why I was completely prepared to become a coach. In 2009 I was assisting in Universiade in Belgrade and I owe the support for my trainer career above all to the late Nenad Manojlovic. I also have to mention Dejan Udovicic who was the selector for the A line-up at the time who directed me in a sense, but it was Nenad Manojlovic who guided me in the right direction.
Between 2011 and 2015 you were the coach for Red Star and in that period the red and white team won the Champions’ League. However, in 2015 you left that position and fully dedicated yourself to working for our representation. Seeing how you’ve come back symbolically to that club this season, even though you don’t have a contract with them, is Red Star your first ‘love’ as a trainer?
DS: I left Red Star temporarily that year because in 2016 we had the Europe winter championship and I had to prepare mentally as well as help our representation prepare for a large competition in Belgrade and the serious pressure that came with it, after which we had the Olympic Games. What happened in 2016 and 2017 was I had nothing to do for around six months for the first time ever. I felt myself losing my sense of water polo. I always say this – just as a player or any athlete has to train every day, a trainer has to do the same, because otherwise you lose the feeling for the sport, which can be a problem. This is how, after a talk with Viktor Jelenic, the president of the club, I decided to come back to Red Star, above all to help out, but also in order to have something to do and work on my own skills as a trainer. I can’t be just the coach for the representation because it’s work you do only several months a year and I need the remaining time to be filled with training too. I’m not used to doing nothing and on top of that every profession needs to be practiced and perfected as long as you’re alive. There’s always more to learn.
Working for a club is much different than working for the representation. There are many more issues when working in club water polo.
DS: We don’t look at problems anymore. We’ve resigned to the fact that we’re living in a stone age and the less we think about it the better it is. Working for a club is different, above all because you’re doing your best to build up your players, to mould them. On the other hand the club season lasts for eight months and has different training methods. In the representation you’re constantly getting ready for one tournament-style competition where the players have been selected long in advance and I’m working with fully formed players. I’m not going to say it’s easier because it’s definitely not, but it’s different for sure.
The representation is practically a champion of everything opposite to the fact that clubs barely compete outside national competition. How do you feel we can solve that situation?
DS: The budget satisfies the needs of our representation. We do have system solutions still present in water polo, but we also have a serious problem with players leaving. Not just representation players, but club players who are doing their best to earn a good living and are trying to use water polo to – if nothing else – earn a scholarship, improve themselves, learn...the problem isn’t just that there aren’t enough players, but also that scheduling terms is expensive in swimming pools where you can find adequate times, especially in Belgrade. Outside Belgrade the local municipalities in Serbia are very supportive of water polo so maybe it’s better to an extent. Belgrade is very expensive for water polo and the clubs are getting by any way they can.
One of the goals when you’re working in a club is to build up players who will later be candidates for the representation. You recently stressed how you think of our own players from Serbia above all because they are the foundations of our representation.
DS: We at the Water polo Association have devised a strategy after the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro up to the Olympic Games in 2024, so in a way we are fully covered for Tokyo and, I can freely say, around 80-85% covered for 2024 when we can expect several more talented players and come out on top positively. Basically every good plan for the future can be made, the problem is how to bring it into being.
Can you maybe see a bit of yourself in some of the players, mostly in Red Star because they are younger and less experienced compared to the players in our representation.
DS: Yes, but only in things I see them doing like complete dummies. (laughter)
Does a productive career as a player help you in working with younger players? Where does the trainer in you end and the player begins?
DS: That’s long gone. The second I became a coach, I left the player behind. Of course, there’s still a feeling remaining, almost like an impulse, but it’s also fading more and more. As a coach I have to focus on the players I’ve got and I have to know them well. It doesn’t come down to ‘I’d do this better’ – I never think anything like that! I try to bring out the best in every player, to see the man who maybe doesn’t realize what he can do. This is when I have to show them, that is to push them and tell them I know them better than they know themselves so they can make something happen. This doesn’t just apply to tactics, but also technical things. My career as a player maybe helps me in those things that I used to find bothersome in my coaches back in the day, so I make sure I don’t do those things. On the other hand I know what I was like as a player so I also have to reign in a little.
In most team sports it can be a problem when younger generations replace the older. When you were growing up the main powerhouses of water polo were Spain, Italy and Russia. Today Serbia is the only representation keeping up its high score despite everything. How do you manage that, especially knowing the fact that water polo isn’t a very profitable sport, despite how popular it is.
DS: This is true, but I feel that we have a very good system that works because water polo has very good shift in generations. We always maintain a broad list of players as potential representation material and they are also in the training system until they become standard representatives. Water polo as a sport is such that it’s not easy to enter the representation, but once you make the first team you don’t leave it.
Vladimir Vujasinovic, your fellow player from the representation and a good friend of yours is a selector for junior categories and is frequently with the senior representation even though he’s not officially a member of the management. Is that maybe one of the secrets of their success?
DS: Vlada isn’t officially a member of the management, but if I can say so, he’s a very welcome guest. He is just an immensely charismatic man whom I consider to be an excellent coach. What’s most interesting about him is the reason why I need him which is the fact that he is very critical towards me, he gives excellent advice and we grew up together. If anyone in the world knows me, it’s him. It’s not even just limited to water polo, tactics or opponents, but he just sort of takes care of me, my character and also the shenanigans I pull sometimes.
When we are watching games in which you’re leading the team, you seem remarkably calm in every situation?
DS: It’s not so much calm as it is composure. When they ask me “how can you be so calm during a game” I have to explain I’m not calm, I’m focused. I’m boiling internally, which is normal. I have training on my mind 24 hours a day. I’m dedicated to it because when I do something I apply myself 100%.
For two years in a row you’ve been selected as the best coach in the world. The representation has won everything there is under your guidance, but you seem to still be standing in the sidelines and always put players in the front, which is unusual. Was there ever a situation where you gave into pressure or came close to it?
DS: No. You have to be realistic and accept the facts. Even though the representation of Serbia has won everything, that’s not the result of my work alone. I don’t agree, for example, with that whole ‘best coach in the world’ business because I really believe there are others who are much better and I have no problems naming them. The ‘title’ came from the fact that the representation of Serbia has won everything. I don’t agree with everything and I keep both feet firmly on the ground. I can’t be proud of it. It’s flattering, of course, but I don’t want to give myself too much credit.
When you were a player and now that you’re a coach, you’ve always been sought after by the media, however we also always get the impression that you’re trying to escape attention, both now and when you were playing.
DS: I don’t need attention. It’s not my style. While I don’t personally need attention from the media, there has to be public scrutiny because I work in a public position. I always try to keep things professional and I don’t resort to extremes.
Does that mean you have a role model among coaches?
DS: A trainer should have originality, but should also not be afraid to look up to others and adopt their methods. I consider it a form of “legal stealing”. I don’t see myself being similar to anyone else, nor do I want to be the same as someone else, but there are tricks and tactical variations that I will grab and copy without a second thought. The point is that you keep learning, especially from those who you think are doing something better than you.