Aleksandar Šapić, one of the world’s best ever water polo players, ended his sporting career eight years ago and got involved in politics as a member of the Democratic Party, first as Deputy to Belgrade Mayor Dragan Đilas, then as Chairman of the Executive Board of the Democratic Party’s City of Belgrade Board, President of the DS City Board, and in 2012 he became President of the Municipality of New Belgrade
Aleksandar Šapić resigned from all party functions in 2013 and formally left the party in 2016, winning the municipal elections on an independent ticket. He recently announced his independent candidacy for the post of mayor of the City of Belgrade and will not agree to any trade or any other function, even a more lucrative one, because he has three more years in office in New Belgrade and a lifelong mandate at the Budi Human Foundation, which he established.
You are among only a small number of our top water polo players that didn’t develop at Partizan. How did your sporting journey progress?
– Through a combination of circumstances, the majority of players emerged through Partizan, but there were exceptions. Aleksandar Ćirić and I are from Red Star. We are the same generation.
I lived in Pavilijoni, which was one of the first parts of New Belgrade to be built, and the Red Star water polo club was based at the “11th April” Sports Centre in Bežanijska Kosa, and I went there to train water polo in 1984 and was there until 1991, when the pool closed.
Then I transferred to Partizan for two years, and even made my first team debut for Partizan, only to return to Red Star and then move on to Bečej, and it was there that I ended my career in our club water polo in 2001. At Bečej I went from being a talented youngster to become a serious player, even recognised at the world level.
Playing in Bečej was perhaps also the most enjoyable part of my sporting career. I was in the country, but not far from home. That was the period when in seven years, from the age of 15 to 22, I went from being a boy to becoming a man, and also the period when we won everything there was to win. We were national champions six times in a row and also became the winners of the Champion’s Cup. We had a very good team, which under other conditions could have won more European titles. However, that was the period after the sanctions during which we’d been expelled from all world federations. We did not have a significant influence on European institutions and it was my generation that broke through the ice to return to the international scene.
You made your first division debut at the age of 14 and played for the senior national team at 18…
– I played with the strongest early on. It’s not often the case that a 14-year-old child debuts for the first team, and at 17 and a half I got my first call to the A selection of the national team, and I went to the Olympic Games in Atlanta around twenty days after I turned 18. Those Olympics were really a huge experience for an 18-year-old. That was the first time I was with people I’d only previously watched on television, and then competitions went one after another. Already at the age of 19 years, in the 1996/97 season, I broke the record in our league, the Yugoslav record of 110 goals that was held by Boro Lazarević from the Jadran club in Herceg Novi, when I scored 140 goals.
When you are constantly part of the minority, when your opinions are constantly opposed to the opinion of the majority, they you shouldn’t disrupt their decisions, but rather you should leave the party. I did that, while trying to ensure that parting of ways was dignified, without any ugly words and attacks
You left the national water polo league in 2001. What were your experiences like in Italy and Russia?
– I first went to Italy, the country where the best water polo was then being played, and then to Russia, where I ended my career in 2009. Although it could have lasted longer, I felt that the time had come when I was no longer ready for the kinds of sacrifices I’d be prepared to make throughout my whole career. I wanted to be fair and honest towards my sport because I’d got everything in my life from that sport, which provided for children and the life of my family. I didn’t want to ignore that, to play with the experience, credibility and authority I had. It was then that I stopped playing.
My career was the way it was, and those statistics cannot be deleted. Perhaps people don’t know that during my club career, from 95/96 at Bečej, when I first became the top scorer in the league, until the end of my career, I was always the best scorer of the league in which I played. That was 14 consecutive years – six seasons in Serbia, five in Italy and three in Russia.
Which of your successes is dearest to you?
– I don’t have a favourite success, because I approached all games equally. My favourite match was the upcoming one, and when it passed it was the past. So now I rarely speak about my sporting career. I won everything, all possible individual, club and national awards and medals. However, my generation failed to win Olympic gold.
When you abandoned the pool in 2009 you also left water polo behind, but why did you try to return by submitting your candidacy for the presidency of the Water Polo Association of Serbia?
-I got a call from the Association in 2013 to submit my candidacy, because they couldn’t find a president and because the Association and water polo were in a difficult situation, despite the great results we had, and still have today. The worst is when the results are there, but the Association still doesn’t function. I said OK, but in those 15 days a second candidate emerged, a big fuss was made and a candidacy was submitted by Babić from SNS [the ruling Serbian Progressive Party]. OK, I said, I won’t feel more important or more serious. Most of them voted for him, so Babić became president and then left the function after a month, and nothing happened.
Unfortunately, the Water Polo Association is still in big trouble, primarily organisationally, but also financially, and I don’t think there’s a greater loss for a sport than when you have world results but you don’t have a good organisation. But that’s a matter for people who have been there the last seven or eight years, and who took over responsibility and decided who would lead them, and I wouldn’t like to meddle in that anymore. I tried back then, they opted for someone else and I wish them lots of luck…
You replaced the swimming pool with the running track and a half-marathon career in the Belgrade Marathon, while you also announced your candidacy for the presidency of the Serbian Olympic Committee.
– I repackaged my training. I can’t go swimming, because that demands much more time and I really like running. I’ve run the half-marathon seven times, and that’s a nice challenge because you run through the streets of your own city and enjoy doing so. That’s the benefit of your training.
I became interested in the Olympic Committee, but then I realised that for eight years there have been rules according to which even the current president couldn’t be selected. Vlade Divac is such a big name in a sport that he doesn’t deserve to be appointed by someone illegitimately, and if you have to drag him through despite the rules, then it is the rules that are no good, and not Vlade Divac.
That apparently didn’t interest anyone for eight years. Then everything was stirred up and two months later they acknowledged everything I’d said and changed the Statute. The basic principle of democracy is that you can choose and be chosen. I don’t see any reason why, if anyone can run for the post of national president, the same principle cannot apply for a sporting institution.
When I realised that this would again be “who is going with whom”, I withdrew my candidacy, because I got everything I have from a sport and I will never participate in any “fight” within sporting organisations and institutions. The moment I saw that they were again preparing for division, I said – it is enough for me that they changed the Statute and put in place normal conditions for the election, regardless of who is selected. They elected a new president and I wish him the best of luck.
I will enter into the elections, as always, with the idea of construction and not destruction. Very little time is needed to demolish something, but constructing something requires much, much more
How do you explain that, despite the democratising of conditions for the election of the President of the Olympic Committee of Serbia, the race only had one candidate?
– We didn’t get a single candidate because of that. We got one candidate and anyone who doesn’t know why we got only one candidate is either naïve or stupid…
You got involved in politics immediately after ending your playing career, initially as a member of the Democratic Party. Why did you relatively quickly leave that party and opt for an independent route?
– I was a formal member of the Democratic Party from 2006, which I joined because of Boris Tadić, but I wasn’t actively involved in politics until 9th November 2009, when I became a deputy to Mayor Dragan Đilas and entered the executive functions of the Democratic Party. I first became Chairman of the Executive Board of the Democratic Party’s City Board, and after a few months, I became president of the City Board, so that was the beginning of my operational work.
However, already by 2013, I had resigned from all positions in the party, because I in no way wanted to disturb their peace of mind, and for another year and a half, I participated in the work of the party. I didn’t want to jeopardise it in any way, and I formally left the party in 2014, because I had for months and years already been part of the minority.
When you are constantly part of the minority when your opinions are constantly opposed to the opinion of the majority, you shouldn’t disrupt their decisions, but rather you should leave the party. I did that, while trying to ensure that parting of ways was dignified, without any ugly words and attacks. Even today I don’t attack anyone. I chose my own path.
What was the essence of your disagreement with the majority?
– That’s simple: I thought something needed to be done in one way, and they thought it should be another way. It’s not about one, two or three things. There was continuity to my disagreement with the decisions of the majority. I come from a sport where there are a hierarchy and order, and while I was part of that organisation I kept silent and only expressed that dissatisfaction within the organisation. The moment I realised I don’t have the power to change something, regardless of whether that was for the better or for worse, I decided to leave and to implement my vision of local politics, in which I was involved, in my own way.
The citizens of New Belgrade gave a good assessment of your way in the elections, and will Belgraders be able to find out what you can offer them as a potential mayor, given that as an independent candidate you will be up against the party machinery of your rivals?
– I cannot know that. I seemingly have no chance, but the practice has shown that event that is possible. I didn’t have much of a chance in New Belgrade either, so I went from a man fighting to cross the minimum threshold to become the election winner. I really cannot know what Belgraders will decide; I cannot even know if I will be able to reach them. My reference is New Belgrade, and anyone who wants to know what I do and how can find out everything.
In any case, just like at all levels of government, so also in the case of local government, people always get the kind of government they deserve – good, bad, mediocre, but that is a mirror of the majority. I will accept whoever is at the helm of Belgrade, no matter what I might think about them, because I cannot cheer against my own city. I will enter into the elections, as always, with the idea of construction and not destruction. Very little time is needed to demolish something, but constructing something requires much, much more.
The City of Belgrade is organised centrally, as is the whole of the country since the time of Slobodan Milošević. Every opposition since then has had a mouth full of decentralisation, but when they come to power they continue with centralisation
Well before you announced your candidacy for the position of mayor of Belgrade, you advocated for a change to the electoral law with the idea of the mayor being elected directly…
– That was one of my reasons for leaving the Democratic Party. I asked why the mayor isn’t elected directly. They said it was better that way. I don’t think it is. They felt it was not good for the mayor and the assembly majority to be from different lists, and I thought that wasn’t a problem and that they can cooperate and control mutually. It is as though we forget that we are the representatives of people who placed their trust in us. If you and I have something personal against one another if behind me and behind you stand 20,000 people, why do we think that they want us to fight? We have no right to that. We have come to do something. A law on the direct elections of mayors is applied in many countries. Our mouths are full of Europe, democracy and developed society, and in 2007 we passed the law that we have today.
As president of the Municipality of New Belgrade, what is your relationship like with the administration of the City of Belgrade?
– We in local government are absolutely limited. However, that has nothing to do with this City administration but rather with the law, which was adopted much earlier, and this administration just uses it to the maximum. The City of Belgrade is organised centrally, as is the whole of the country since the time of Slobodan Milošević. Every opposition since then has had a mouth full of decentralisation, but when they come to power they continue with centralisation. This is done by the current government but was also done by the previous one.
Today, the City of Belgrade is at the centre of everything – money and authority – but people notice if, as the municipal president, you try to do something more, even though according to this system a municipal president wouldn’t have to do anything, and you wouldn’t be able to blame him.
Is it correct that you are only interested in the position of mayor and nothing else?
– At the moment, being a director of a public city enterprise, being a member of a Council or being a City Secretary means having a budget and authority at least 10 to 15 times higher than a municipal president. This represents a huge potential for political trade-offs – including my own if I crossed the threshold.
However, I don’t want that. I said: I’ll either get a chance to be at the helm of Belgrade or nothing. I won’t accept any other function, even though they are much bigger than the one I hold today. I can’t be fairer than that. Here, let others emerge with that kind of stance and I will respect that.
When do you expect the election to be held and have you already prepared your list?
– Regular elections are due in April 2018 and I don’t know whether extraordinary ones will be called, but anything’s possible.
The list is less important than the people who, if you gain the trust of citizens, you place in the position to do a job. Lists are only the protectors of the vote. That’s the reality. The lists should include people who will not cheat you because a councillor doesn’t earn a substantial income and shouldn’t hold a senior function. You should state clearly who the people are in whom you will place the trust to take over important positions in the City of Belgrade.
They must have value in the field in which they will work, and I think I have enough capable people for that, while on the list will only be friends and people who will not be “flyers” and who won’t sell me out. This is the only way until the Law is changed, and until the bearers of lists become the actual owners of mandates.
The “Be Human” Foundation is the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Everything else is meaningless compared to that. I’m also certain I’ll never be able to leave this foundation, regardless of what job I’m doing tomorrow. I have no moral right to that
During your sporting career, you won a lot of medals, but you recently put them up for auction to raise funds for the “Budi Human” (Be Human) Foundation, which you established. How much are your medals worth?
– My medals are worth about €200,000. Only three have yet to be sold… I must say that the “Be Human” Foundation is the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Everything else is meaningless compared to that. I’m also certain I’ll never be able to leave this foundation, regardless of what job I’m doing tomorrow. I have no moral right to that because there are 200 families that, due to us, have, if nothing else, at least hope… For as long as I am dealing with public life I will do everything I can to strengthen the foundation institutionally so that if I am not in the position to do so tomorrow, it can carry the weight of its own great responsibility in society because many people have placed their trust in it.
Many people come to us, not on a whim, but to ask for help, and they don’t care what I do – whether I’m a municipal president, a coach or a businessman, but rather only that they and their child can receive help. Because of that we will improve the foundation’s website and make it even better and easier to navigate because that is the secret of our success. Anyone who’s interested in what we do and how can find all data, every dinar invested, every SMS, and can monitor the entire flow of money. That will soon go automatically, from the website of the bank to our site, so we are completely excluding the human factor.
World’s Best Water Polo Player
Aleksandar Šapić was declared the world’s best water polo player (2005), came third in FINA’s vote for the best athlete in the 21st century (2010), was the best athlete of the Olympic Committee of Serbia (2004), Vojvodina Athlete of the Year (2000), and received the Order of Nemanja in the first degree (2001 and 2004), the October Award of Belgrade (2005), the National Sports Prize (2007), the May Award of the Sporting Association of Serbia (2008) etc.
He scored 981 goals for the Serbia national team (2,675 total goals scored) and was selected eight times in the dream teams of major competitions.