Mate Anić, one of the brightest upcoming stars of Croatian water polo, is advancing fast in his career. As a goalkeeper, he brings an interesting perspective on water polo gameplay and matches in general. We had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about all things water polo.
Hello, Mate. Let’s start with a little bit about you. Where are you from, when and where did you start training water polo?
I was born in Split, where I grew up and still live. I have inherited the love for sports from my father in early childhood. Before I went to elementary school, my dad took me to NK Hajduk football school. After four years spent on the green terrain, I moved to the pool. I have had my first water polo training on Split’s pool “Poljud” in a club VK Mornar in 2006. I have chosen water polo because of my elementary school colleagues who were training in VK Jadran at the time.
When did you know that water polo is going to be more than just a hobby?
Even after years spent at the pool, passing all the possible ages and reaching the junior team, I thought of water polo as nothing more than just a game, entertainment and hobby. Only after the invitation to the young national team and the first training sessions with the senior team Mornar did I realize that my effort could pay off. My ambitions grew and water polo became an important part of my life.
Which coaches had the most impact on your development?
During my younger years, VK Mornar had a young goalkeeper coach — Kliškinjić — who worked with me continuously and relentlessly. He brought me to the seniors, but I did not manage to make a breakthrough. Then I went to OVK Pošk and worked with a new coach — Siniša Školneković. During these two years of joint work, I have made great progress and I think that Školneković was the one responsible for my success on the water polo scene. At the moment, I work with coach Kundid in Jadran and we are doing a good job for now.
Why did you decide to become a goalkeeper?
When I first came to the training in the summer of 2006, all my peers were skillful swimmers and were good at ball play, so I chose to be a goalkeeper due to my slow and poorly-coordinated swimming between the goals. Also, there is an interesting story why everyone liked me as a goalkeeper. When I was set to be the goalkeeper, I still wasn’t good enough at keeping myself at the surface of the water. I would push off the underwater ledge of the pool wall to make impressive jumps and saves – I basically became a goalie by fluke, haha.
At the beginning of your career, did you have any role models?
At the very beginning, not really since all that I knew about water polo was what I saw in my generation. A little later, when I fell in love with the sport, I followed the scene more closely – I was very impressed by the performances of Croatian goalies Vićan and Pavić.
How do you view your performance in the club and the team? What would you do to make it better?
After a long and painstaking preparatory period this summer, I’ve progressed a lot for this competitive season. I had a continuity of well-defended matches, most influenced by the good psychological preparation for the game. Also, I work a lot on my concentration itself during the match.
I try to minimize my mistakes in the game and constantly improve my goalkeeper skills. Since I have been invited to the national team, I got an opportunity to prove myself and left a good impression. There is always room for improvement, of course. My wish is to play in the national team as much as I can, so I can gain experience, which is the most important thing for a goalkeeper.
What are the biggest achievements in your career?
The greatest achievement in my career is joining the senior national team and being here while Croatia is the current world champion. Among the other achievements, I’m proud of the 2nd place in the National Cup this season and winning the European Junior Championship up to the age of 17.
What is the hardest game you have played in your career?
Definitely, the unexpected entry into the LUN Cup semi-finals played in Napoli between Acquachiara and Mornar. I came into the game at the end of the 2nd quarter with a very unfavorable result and, when I entered the pool, I felt the greatest tremor and nervousness. And I couldn’t beat the feelings until the end of the game. It was the most difficult, nervous match I’ve been defending.
Which defeat hurt you the most?
When we lost to Budva in the playoffs for staying in the A1 Regional League with Pošk. In that match, we lost by a couple of goals difference, even though we were the better team that day. In a blink of a moment, we lost concentration and lost the game eventually, ending up in A2 League. That defeat was even worse due to the fact that we were a young and balanced team that supplemented its weaknesses with strong, continuous work and effort. But that single moment of inexperience and a fall in concentration cost us the A1 league.
From the goalkeeper’s perspective, which player caused you the most trouble and which team was the hardest to play against?
Of the players, Sandro Sukno was definitely the hardest one to play against. Out of the teams, it was VK Jug because I defended against them a lot of times, with all three Split’s clubs, and every time they managed to fill the net on our side. They are the hardest to play against since all of their positions are covered by world-class disciplined players.
A the moment, you are playing in VK Jadran in Split. Can you introduce us to water polo in Croatia? How is it organized, what are the wages (if there are any), and which clubs are the best ones?
In Croatia, there is the same story going on for years. At the very top, we have VK Jug, who is always fighting in the finals, only changing its opponents. In Dubrovnik, water polo is the number one sport and VK Jug represents the city when it comes up to sports. Then we have Zagreb’s Mladost who oscillates as Jug’s worthy opponent, but Jug always ends up on top.
In recent years, club Primorje from Rijeka had a decent success coming to the top of Regional and European leagues, but their episode was over soon and now they have dropped to the 2nd Regional League. The situation is quite different in Split. We have three clubs (Jadran, Mornar, and Pošk), three traditions and the eternal struggle to dominate in the city. Over the past few years, Mornar BS had that title, but this year it was taken by VK Jadran who showed the ambitions to rise to the very top of Croatian water polo. At the very bottom of the list, we have Medveščak from Zagreb, Solaris from Šibenik and VK Zadar.
Croatian water polo clubs are mostly financed by their cities. Well-organized clubs have their own permanent sponsors, but these investments are rather small in water polo compared to football and other sports.
What is the current situation in your club and what are the plans and goals for the future?
At this point, I think the situation in VK Jadran is very good. The club’s management has a clear plan and ambitions — to bring VK Jadran back to the top of Croatian water polo. We want to fight Jug in the Croatian Championship in 2020, on our 100th anniversary.
In the meantime, we want to create a stable club, improve youth recruitment, and invest in the seniors who will achieve notable successes not only on the national and regional level, but also in the European competitions.
What about your future? Do you see yourself in another club, another Croatian club perhaps, or maybe abroad?
I am the type of person who does not plan the future much. For the time being, my only goal is to improve my play in the club where I currently am and show how much I can do to get an opportunity to join the National Team.
Sometime later, I would like to be a part of the big European club scene. If I could choose, I would go with playing in Barceloneta because my wish is to live in Spain one day, especially in Barcelona!
The Croatian National Team qualified for the European Championship in Barcelona and you are the third goalkeeper of the current world champion. Do you see yourself playing in Barcelona? And where do you see Croatia in the Championship this year?
It is up to me to show the coach how good I am by the end of the season because I would very much like to go for seniors preparations. If this is the case, I have to work hard. I have the desire to compete and prove myself. For now, I dream of Barcelona. If and when the preparations come, I will be ready for them.
As a national team, I think we have a great potential to continue achieving big results and I am not afraid of the European Championship in Barcelona — we have already proven our quality at the LEN Europa Cup in Rijeka.
In your opinion, what should be done to bring water polo closer to viewers and especially sponsors?
I think that our team does a fantastic promotion for water polo with nothing other than its top results. The national team has a bigger audience than the clubs themselves. And the results are are what brings more spectators, and spectators bring sponsors.
The Croatian clubs’ policy is not to spent a lot of money on player transfers. With that situation, we leave more resources to motivate young people to start playing water polo. Later, these players will be in a selection of potential players who will be the foundation for the better results.
Do you have the feeling that water polo is somewhat neglected compared to other sports in Croatia, regarding successes? What could be done to improve that?
Not only in Croatia, but also in Europe and the rest of the world, sports have become a business. Big money is invested and spent in them. Football is the number one, followed by basketball, handball, and tennis. All these sports created big money circulation through investors, media, players, and viewers. That’s the reason these sports are more interesting to the wider masses and therefore more popular.
Water polo is currently miles away from the business as compared to the aforementioned sports. Only those close to the pool are following the club scene. At least Croatians have reasons to show a greater interest in water polo because the players put on a good show each summer on interesting competitions. However, it’s difficult for water polo to get out of the shade of football and other sports.
What are your plans for 2018?
I hope that in 2018 I will continue to be as good as I was in the first part. For the start, I plan to finish the season at the highest possible level. At the end of it, I hope to catch some time to rest, relax and travel a bit because I will really need that after this big season. When I’m done, we are going for new victories.
Can you list several reasons why young people should decide to play water polo?
First of all, water polo is really fun to play in the early ages. It has a lot of socializing, playing for fun, and developing a desire to compete. Also, there is a lot of traveling and life-long friendships — as a sport, water polo helps your body and spirit. I would recommend water polo to all young people because there is a possibility to fall in love with this sport. And if they do, it will enrich their lives.