Water polo is a team water sport. The playing team consists of six field players and one goalkeeper. The winner of the game is the team that scores the most goals. Game play involves swimming, treading water (using a kicking motion known as “eggbeater kick”), players passing the ball while being defended by opponents, and scoring by throwing the ball into a net defended by a goalie. ‘Man-up’ (or ‘power play’) situations occur frequently. Water polo, therefore, has strong similarities to the land-based sport of handball.
Dimensions of the water polo pool are not fixed and can vary between 20×10 and 30×20 meters. Minimum water depth must be least 1.8 meters (6 feet). The special water polo ball is similar in size to a soccer ball but constructed of waterproof nylon.
Water polo as a team sport was featured as a demonstration of strength and swimming skills in late 19th century England and Scotland, where water sports and racing exhibitions were a feature of county fairs and festivals. Water polo is now popular in many countries around the world, notably Europe (particularly in Serbia, Russia, Croatia, Italy, Montenegro, Greece and Hungary), the United States, Canada and Australia.
Men’s water polo at the Olympics was the first team sport introduced at the 1900 games, along with cricket, rugby, football, polo (with horses), rowing and tug of war. Women’s water polo became an Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games after political protests from the Australian women’s team.
Players can move the ball by throwing it to a teammate or swimming with the ball in front of them. Players are not permitted to push the ball underwater in order to keep it from an opponent, or push or hold an opposing player unless that player is holding the ball. Water polo is an intensely physical sport, so fouls are very common and result in a free throw during which the player cannot shoot at the goal unless beyond the “5 metre” line.
Water polo players need remarkable stamina because of the considerable amount of holding and pushing that occurs during the game, some allowed, some unseen or tolerated by the referees (usually underwater). There are several different types of fouls. In an ordinary foul called outside the 5 metre line, the player is either able to shoot, pass or continue swimming with the ball. The “fouler” must simply give up the ball and back off. The major or ejection foul results in an 20-second kick out. A penalty shot (or 5-metre shot) is awarded when a major foul occurs inside the 5-metre line and a probable goal was prevented by the foul. A player can only have 3 ejections before being majored and excluded from play for the rest of the game. If a player gets a brutality foul (typically given for deliberate hitting with intent to harm), he or she is excluded from the game for 4 minutes, and his/her team is forced to play with one less player for that duration, while the opposing team also gets awarded a penalty shot. For unsportsmanlike behaviour such as unacceptable language, violence or persistent fouls, a player might get a misconduct foul and be ejected for the remainder of the game, with substitution after a 20-second count. Water polo is a demanding sport; action is continuous, and players commonly swim 3 kilometers or more during the four periods of play.
Water polo is a game requiring excellent hand-eye coordination. The ability to handle and pass the ball flawlessly separates the good teams from the great teams. A pass thrown to a field position player is preferably a “dry pass” (meaning the ball does not touch the water) and allows for optimal speed when passing from player to player with fluid motion between catching and throwing. A “wet pass” is a deliberate pass into the water, just out of reach of the offensive player nearest the goal (the “hole set”) and his defender. The hole-set can then lunge towards the ball and out of the water to make a shot or pass.
Every 2 to 4 years since 1973, a men’s Water Polo World Championship is organized within the FINA World Aquatics Championships. Women’s water polo was added to these World Championships in 1986. A second tournament series, the FINA Water Polo World Cup, has been held every other year since 1979. In 2002, FINA organized the sport’s first international league, the FINA Water Polo World League. There is also a European Water Polo Championship that is held every other year. Professional Water Polo is played in many southern and eastern European countries like Serbia, Croatia, Russia, Italy, Spain, etc. with the LEN Euroleague tournament played amongst the best teams.