We sat down with the Total Player 2019 Denes Varga to talk about his humble beginnings, troublesome teens, and his rise to water polo stardom. Check out intimate details, personal insights and off-topic banter with Total Waterpolo’s newly crowned living legend in our extensive interview below.
How does it feel to become the Total Player?
It was a fantastic season for us in Ferencvaros and I managed to play very productively. I am very satisfied that I was able to perform like this during the whole season. Although I couldn’t really play at the World championships, I still gained enough votes to win the Total Player Award. It’s a significant award because it will always remind me of this season. If this award went to Francesco Di Fulvio, it would have also been well deserved because he played excellently at the World championships. It would have been absolutely justified as well.
Also, the public votes were crucial from my perspective. I was both surprised and honored when I saw that a lot of people voted and sheared your public poll on social media. I’m very thankful to everyone.
Let’s start from the beginning of your water polo career. How did you end up in water polo?
It was a family thing. Four of us played water polo. First, I went to a “swimming kindergarten”. But very quickly it became very dull, so I switched to water polo because it’s a game after all. Soon I realized that I like to score goals and, more importantly, that I’m able to score them. It was very joyful and I wanted to stay in this atmosphere.
Did you always play the driver position?
Yes, this has been my position from the beginning, but sometimes I went to the center forward position because I was fat, you know… 🙂
Well, that turned out well for you :D. What was the motivation that pushed you forward during your childhood?
When I was a kid, I watched the Hungarian national team win trophies. I developed the dream to become an Olympic champion and I was training for that. I was visualizing that. Even though I had some tough periods in my life with injuries and accidents, I forced myself to go in that direction of my dreams of becoming an Olympic gold medalist.
Can you name coaches that had the most significant impact on your career and what would be the most valuable thing that they each taught you?
Well in a way, all my coaches were influential, but I remember leaving Vasas… There was an excellent atmosphere and my coach Földi László was the main reason we played excellent water polo. He was a remarkable person, not the most prominent strategist, but a very, very good person. I really enjoyed every training during that period. When I moved to play for Primorje in Croatia, I think I learned many new things, because it was a different water polo culture. Back in the days, it was a big step for me to go there and train with a much more detailed training plan on every aspect of the game. Working with Roje and Asić showed me a different point of view and I managed to develop new skills that proved very useful later on in my career.
You are now in your prime years, but is there any segment of the game in which you would like to improve in your performance? What are your weaknesses?
If you asked me this two years ago, I would have said that I have to be a bit more physically prepared. But I have developed in this segment since then. I think even on the highest level, I can play almost four quarters in a game, which is a big step forward for me. But as a player, I can never be satisfied. I want to lead my team to success in every match, so I always look for things I can improve on in both defense or offense. Nobody is flawless, and we all need to keep getting better throughout our whole career.
Who was your water polo role model when you were growing up?
I have a couple of Hungarian and former Yugoslavian players I looked up to. I liked the way Tamas Kasas played. For me, he was a one-of-a-kind artist of this sport. I also admired the effectiveness of Biros and the same could be said for Šapić and Uskoković. So these four players influenced me a lot in my early years.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you regret doing and you would do it differently now?
When I was young, I did some stupid things. Very serious ones. Life-threatening stupidities like a car accident and stuff. So I wouldn’t say that I would go through these things again. When you feel satisfied and comfortable, from time to time, life puts you on certain trials. Sometimes those things can push you to the bottom. Very deep… to check if you can stand up again. I think I took those tests and succeeded, which helped me develop as a person and into the player I am today. Inevitably there were situations, like the car accident, that I wish I had avoided, but I managed to stand up.
If you are okay with it, can you tell us more details about that car accident?
Yeah, it’s all far behind me and maybe my story can help to prevent some of your younger readers from doing the same. It happened back in 2005 when I was 18 years old. It was a classic disco night accident after having a good time at some party. I decided to drive my car with five or six other friends and I crashed straight into a lamppost. Luckily everybody was able to get out of the car except me. I had to be saved by a fireman. They had to cut me out and I broke my neck. So I had to wear this system called Halo to fix my head for three months. I couldn’t move. All I could do is to sit at my home and think about my life choices. What I want to do, what I need to do… And I came to the conclusion that if I have the talent to play water polo, then I have to play water polo. It’s a kind of responsibility, you know, like for Spiderman to save people’s life 🙂 I know that water polo isn’t as important as Spiderman’s job.
However, this is what I had to do. So as soon as I recovered, it was straight into the pool again. Eight months later, I participated in my first European Championship in Belgrade and I played really well.
(19 years old Denes played alongside his idols Kasas and Biros and scored 2 goals in the big final against Serbia led by his other hero Aleksandar Šapić. They lost 9:8)
Which is the favorite goal you scored in your career?
Well, uh, I have a lot… I want to be humble, but I can’t because I scored a couple of essential and decisive goals and those are all precious to me. But I really enjoy it when I score a goal which entertains fans. Sometimes we are so serious about winning or losing and fighting that we forget that we should be enjoying it as well. Water polo needs to stay a game in any and all circumstances.
What was the biggest disappointment during your career?
I would say, there were two disappointments. Both were lost final games in Budapest (EC 2014, WC 2017). The second one against Croatia, I really couldn’t play because I was injured and I couldn’t train for that whole event. Still, we managed to get to the finals, which was very satisfying. If someone offered the silver before the European championship, I would have been happy to take it. But when you lose in the final, it’s different because then you had the opportunity to win.
Oh, and maybe the biggest disappointment for me in my career was not getting through Montenegro in Rio Olympics. We worked really hard that summer with Benedek. We trained like crazy, and we really thought that it’s going to be our tournament. Finally, we choose a bad tactic for two quarters, and we could only come back to secure the penalty shoot-out. And eventually, we lost that.
After that defeat, I couldn’t find myself for months. I didn’t want to go to practice and I was in a very, very bad mood. I was arguing with my wife. All because I thought that all that hard work would pay off in the end, but the sport is not always like that…
Interesting, another roadblock you managed to skip. Let’s move on. Who was the best teammate you ever played with?
If we are talking about the best chemistry in the water, I have to say it was playing with my brother Daniel. He was always watching me. He had the attention until the very last moment and if he could assist me, I would get the ball. With these new rules where every contact from behind in front of the goal is a penalty, it could have really paid off. Since he ended his playing career, no one has been trying to assist me as much as he did 🙂
Can you name an opponent who is/was toughest to defend?
I could, but I am not sure I want to, because he’s still playing 😉
What do you expect from the upcoming European Championships in Budapest?
As I told you before, I lost two finals here in Budapest. So my main goal is to get there again. To the final. I would have a different approach this time because I always had the mindset that it’s a big thing to play that game, that it is a one time opportunity… But, I have something else in mind for this occasion 🙂 So I really wish that we can get there. And even if unbeatable Serbia comes, we will bring our best effort to break their incredible series.
What is your plan after your active playing career? Do you think about it?
Yes, I have been doing some things during these last two years. I took part in the construction of some real estate for sale. I have some very good insights into this industry as well. I’m surrounded by interesting people and a lot of opportunities, so I think I will be able to do even more than construction. I see myself as some sort of investor after finishing my career.
Very interesting. Since you have a perfect understanding of the game, it seems natural that you will have aspirations of becoming a coach…
No, no. Even though I already got some offers, I think water polo is exciting as long as you can play it. I don’t want to tie myself up even further. Maybe I can return later on to share my knowledge if I manage to achieve personal financial stability. Still, I don’t want to be dependent on water polo. I don’t see myself standing next to the pool twice a day for the rest of my life.
Can you share your thoughts regarding the new rules?
They are not bad, but the main problem is that we should reduce the presence of the referees. I don’t want to be drastic, but we should have fewer situations which have to be decided by the referee’s personal interpretation. Like we witness for penalties.
But there are also some great things. For example, I enjoy that they allowed the play to continue after the foul outside six meters. I will always support ideas to have more goals during the game. Even the new rules regarding penalties are a good thing because they will reward the attacker who managed to get in front of the goal before the defender. And that should be a definite “yes or no” situation.
One other thing I don’t understand is why we don’t play on a 25m field. First, the transition part of the game is very dull for spectators. During the TV broadcast camera usually stays on the goalkeeper for 6-7 seconds, without any action. And now, with the reduced shot clock on consecutive attacks, paradoxically, we have less action. If a defender gets an exclusion during the transition, we need to swim into formation, take a quick shot and quickly swim back to defend. Somehow they managed to change the rules in a way that there is less action and more swimming. And the solution for that would be to shorten the field. Of course, this would give more opportunities to organize water polo tournaments in the 25m pools.
What could be done to make water polo more popular worldwide? What are your thoughts on that subject?
I think water polo is entertaining to watch only at the highest level. Like this year’s World league final (Serbia vs. Croatia in Belgrade) was something exceptional. Not only the way they played but the whole atmosphere and how the weather was changing during the game. It started normal, then the rain came and then the big storm.
They had to win that game at the last moment. An excellent match to watch. But we have very few games like that during the season. But something needs to be done to make any game more interesting to spectators. My teammates from the national team like to watch darts and talk about it a lot.
A few days ago I watched it on television for three minutes and I instantly realized why people want to watch this sport. It is not because everyone can play it, rather because there are no boring parts like swimming in our game. One guy throws his arrows, immediately the other one throws his… It is action all the time and very clear, so you can relax and enjoy your drink and snacks while watching it. While watching water polo, you’re just trying to figure out what is happening. Why was someone excluded, why is this a penalty when 2 minutes ago in the same situation play just continued? It should be more precise. But even those things can be handled with proper marketing tools.
A good example is ice hockey, where you don’t even see the ball, but it is still very popular. Why wouldn’t we have a small camera on players to show the real action during the game? Imagine if you could see the penalty from the goalkeeper’s perspective or show the audience how small the goal is when you shoot from 11 meters. All of this would really help with the popularity of our sport.
We are almost at the end. What would be your message for the kids worldwide, why should they go to the pool and start training water polo?
Well, financially speaking, they shouldn’t… Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted with my life, especially in the last two years, because I have two kids. But when I’m away, my wife can’t deal with them because they are two little angel-faced devils. So I made some tough decisions to get some help so my career can be uninterrupted, My work ethic, which I follow, how I eat, how I train… all of these must be unimpeded, so I can do my job. The good thing is that it paid off with all the trophies with Ferencvaros and with this award. This is why it means a lot to me.
While I do think that I am more satisfied with my athletic achievements than the common football player out there, most of them earn 10 times more than water polo athletes without even stepping on the field. That’s why I suggest, that they shouldn’t consider it as a career. The thing is that water polo has always been close to my heart and I have enjoyed playing it ever since I was a kid. It is a beautiful sport, especially if you’re inside the water. So if you really love the water, if you like to play with the ball and you can manage to not sacrifice your education for it, then it definitely will be a great choice.
As you know, winning the Total Player Award gives you a spot in our Expert jury in the future. Even though your votes don’t count for this year, we are sure that our readers would like to see your TOP 5 for the last season.
Thank you, Denes and we look forward to seeing more of your magic shows in the upcoming years!