Croatian water polo has many heroes after a two-week European Championships in Split. But, at this moment, one of them is in the shadow of more experienced and older players. He was the youngest on Croatia’s team in Split, but his contribution to the title is significant.
He is Marko Zuvela, a 20-year-old guy from Dubrovnik *he will turn 21 in December). He was among the top 7 Croatia players according to the minutes spent in the water during the tournament. Zuvela did a good job both in defense and in the attack.
Last year, Zuvela finished his career in the youth and junior national teams, winning 5th place at the World U20 Championships in Prague.
His first major competition in the senior national team was the World Championships in Budapest. The Croats finished in 4th place in the capital of Hungary. The semifinal spot at the World Championships is a good result, for sure. Still, a bitter taste remained after defeats in the medal matches.
“Considering that the team was changed significantly after the Tokyo Olympics as Croatia suffered a generational switch, 4th place is a good result. But, we players didn’t accept it as a success. We were so close to a medal. We were disappointed after Budapest, but, on the other side, 4th place at the World Championships was an additional motive for us to work harder during the summer. After the Budapest tournament, I believed we could take a medal in Split in front of the home crowd.”, Zuvela says at the start of the interview with Total Waterpolo.
Playing in front of the home crowd at a big tournament is always a double-edged sword. Fans can help the athletes, but the hosts face the pressure of big expectations. But, Zuvela doesn’t speak about the pressure. Fans were Croatia’s extra player.
“Before the Championships, we expected that we wouldn’t play in front of the packed stands before the knockout round. But, we had great support from the fans from the first game. More than 6000 spectators were with us at the first game against Malta. Fans were the wind at our back throughout the tournament and led us towards the gold. ”
“Playing in front of our fans was our biggest advantage compared to the opponents. We felt that the whole of Croatia was with us. So many people supported us, not just those who managed to get a ticket and be in the stands. The nation’s support was a big motivation for the team. We won the gold medal for our fans and our people”
The Croatian national team played better and better from game to game in Split. The climax of that uprising was the final, against Hungary. The Croats led and dictated the pace most of the time. They played better and calmer in crucial moments of the gold-medal match. Analyzing Croatia’s campaign toward the European top, Zuvela said:
„The road to the title is always difficult. All games were important. In our case, the first crucial game was against Greece. We didn’t play as we should, but we managed to keep 1st place in the group. That game helped us because we learned from the mistakes we made, and we raised ourselves afterwards. Our next opponent was Georgia in the quarterfinals. Congratulations to Georgia, they played well in Split. They deserved a spot in the quarterfinals, but we knew that we were better and that we would win.
Then came the most important games semifinals and the final. These two games were, as we expected, very tough, but we deserved both the wins and climbed the highest step of the podium. After the victory over Italy, we were encouraged and beleived we could beat Hungary in the final.
In a short period, Zuvela became one of the key players in the Croatian national team.
“At the beginning of the preparations, I didn’t expect such a playing time I got this summer. I am certainly satisfied with my role in the senior national team in my first season. It’s sure that the season in Jug helped me a lot. Jug head coach Vjekoslav Kobescak gave me an opportunity me to play as much as possible in all competitions, which meant a lot to me.
At the end of the first and very successful summer in the senior national team, Zuvela concludes:
“This summer was school and a new dose of maturation, which comes in handy at the beginning of a career in the national team, and it is a good basis for my future. This is undoubtedly the foundation on which my future career can be built.
If you ask me if I learned a lot this summer – I did. The summer of 2022 was a great experience, especially since it was crowned with the gold medal. Everything I achieved with the national team this summer is a stronger incentive for future work and development.”