As a former coach who has been involved in the sport of water polo for almost 60 years, I am genuinely concerned about the future of water polo sport. This article is a little lengthy; but please bear with me, as I believe that we have reached a point where we need to start having discussions about what we can do to help water polo compete in the international arena. Should we continue as we always have been, as a small niche sport that is followed by a few loyal fans in only a few select countries and cities around the world, or do we need to start expanding the sport by appealing to more people around the world?
A vast majority of the countries in the world do not sponsor water polo as a National sport or do not come close to fielding a national team for international competition. There are fewer than ten countries in the world, most of them in Europe, who have a realistic chance of medaling in international competition like the World championships or the Olympic games. Outside of a few European countries, and the United States and Australia, the popularity of water polo among the general population in most countries is barely noticeable. Even in the United States, hardly anyone outside of California has even heard of the sport.
In many countries of the world, there is no organized competition, even at the club or school levels. Even in Europe, outside of a handful of countries, water polo is only played in a few small select enclaves around each country. It certainly is not a nationally recognized sport in most of those countries, except maybe in Hungary and Italy and a few Balkan countries. Outside of a few countries clustered around the Mediterranean, water polo barely exists in other parts of Northern Europe; and it doesn’t exist at all in most parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South and Central America.
Water Polo and Olympic Games
So far, our Olympic status and support from FINA are the only things that have allowed us to survive as an International sport. This may not be enough, as the Olympic status quo is being challenged every four years with the addition and subtraction of sports. Those sports that cannot make it in the international arena will be dropped from the Olympic program. Water polo is currently on the bubble in regards to Olympic participation, surviving because of support from a few individuals in FINA that still champion the sport. This may not continue in the future as FINA only really cares about the big money and TV sports of swimming and diving. Water polo, with its lack of worldwide popularity and appeal, and its low ranking in competition for the all-important TV dollar, may be one of the sports that is dropped in future Olympics.
The water polo community and the people in charge of administrating and coaching the sport have got to start thinking about what we can do to appeal to more people and countries around the world. A big question about water polo has to be asked. It concerns the game that we are presenting to the rest of the world. Is the game that we are currently playing good enough to allow us to survive as an International sport?
We can not continue to play a game that is good for just the same few countries
We need a game that appeals to everyone, and a game that is fun and exciting to watch. We need a game that everyone can play and everyone can understand. At a meeting called by FINA several years ago in the Caribbean, the consensus of the delegates from around the water polo world was that in order to promote water polo as an international sport, we have to do a better job of marketing our sport. That may be true, but in order to market our sport, we need a better product to market. To get fans we need to first have a product that people will want to watch and participate in; and then once we achieve that, we can build awareness about our product through marketing.
In my opinion, water polo as it is being played today is just not exciting enough to draw the attention of fans around the world. I don’t think that we have a good enough product that will make people want to pay money to watch it on TV or to attend games. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the sport as it is played today is boring and static. I love the game, but I have trouble watching many of the games that I see being played today. We can do better than what we are doing now. We have done better in the past. We can do it again if people will just admit that we need to make some changes in our sport.
I sometimes wonder if we really care whether water polo is viable as an international sport or not. Perhaps we should start caring because if we don’t do something about reaching more countries and people around the world, we could lose the sport at the Olympic level. So far we have ignored doing something about our status in the world, simply being satisfied with the status quo, and keeping things the way that they are. The only people that are satisfied with the sport are the few countries that win medals in International competition.
Some people think that all we have to do is change a few rules, and all of our problems will be solved. It does not just rule that has to be changed; it is the attitude of coaches, referees, players, and administrators that need to change if we are to become a viable sport. We have to change the feeling that everything is all right with our game and the way that we are playing the game. We have to change the attitude that we are satisfied with being a small niche sport that appeals to a small group of supporters and fans. We have to strive to become better!
WHAT IS OUR PROBLEM?
We have to ask what it is about our game that keeps it from gaining worldwide attention? We know some of the causes of the decrease in popularity in our sport around the world. Some of these things cannot be changed. But on top of all of our inherent problems – lack of facilities, lack of money, the game takes place underwater, it’s hard to watch on TV, too many whistles, hard game to understand, etc., we now add insult to injury by presenting a game to the world, that to me and many others as well is actually slow and boring to watch. Where once water polo was a swimming and horizontal game of motion and movement, the game of today is a static game of vertical positioning, passing, and little movement except to get from one end of the pool to the other.
Water polo is a game that is meant to be played fast. People want to see movement. They want to see people moving, not just ball movement. They do not want to see athletes in a static vertical position who are simply passing the ball to each other. Passing a ball is not that exciting to watch. The game has become a “big man’s” game, where size, muscle, length and brawn are more important than speed, quickness, agility and fineness. This emphasis on size and height alone is enough to disqualify millions of people from around the world from ever playing the game.
Where once the fast-moving counterattack was an exciting part of the game, it is rarely executed in today’s game. Where once “natural” goals were a big part of the game, now many of the goals come on the six against five extra-man passing attack. Where once scoring came from the center, from players who attacked the goal by swimming (drivers), from the counterattack, and from perimeter shooting, now almost all of the goals come from perimeter shooting against zone defenders in the front court and in the extra-man attack. Where once we played exclusively in exciting man-to-man defenses, we now play mostly static zone defenses.
Fast movement and swimming in the attack is almost completely gone from today’s game. Where are the smaller, fast and quick attackers of years past, exciting attackers like De Magistris from Italy and Estiarte from Spain? If players like this do exist in today’s game, then they are being hidden by coaches who prefer a static and vertical system of play over a movement/driving game.
What is it about our game that causes us to play this static and vertical style? We didn’t use to exclusively play this style of game in the past. Why do we play it now? To me, the main reason why we play the static and vertical style is because we stubbornly stick to the concept of the static center-forward who plants himself in front of the goal, and never moves from that position. I strongly feel that stationing the center-forward in front of the goal is what inhibits the movement game that fans desire and want to see. To me, the biggest hurdle that we have in this sport is that we have to figure out what to do with the center-forward position.
THE ROLE OF THE CENTER HAS CHANGED
We have always had a center in water polo who contributed to the attack. What has changed about the center’s contribution to the game? How has the role of the center changed from a positive one that encourages motion, to a negative one that inhibits motion? Playing a center directly in front of the goal is a tradition that goes back 75 or more years in water polo. It has been the mainstay of the sport. The only problem is that this tradition has actually become a handicap to playing the game of water polo. This is because the role of the center has changed from when it was first conceived. To put it simply, the center position has outlived its usefulness in the sport.
What actually does the center contribute to the attack except to draw exclusion fouls? The most successful water polo coach in the world Ratko Rudic said after the last European Championships:
“Several teams were with a single center-forward? This is because if the ball arrives at two meters, the exclusion is called straight away. Therefore, a coach just needs a physically strong center who “pretends” to get the ball, rather than a true center forward who has the technical skill for grabbing the ball, passing the ball, and also scoring goals”.
In the past, if the center was fouled, he could actually pass the ball to a moving teammate who was driving to the goal. But because of rule changes that don’t allow common fouls at that position, the center in today’s game is not even allowed to make a pass to a moving teammate; or even allowed to take a shot for that matter. The game has developed where coaches instruct the defenders to give a major foul on the center and play a man down, rather than allow the center to shoot the ball. Where once the center could score goals, fouling him has now taken away his ability to shoot the ball.
How many sports allow a player to station himself in a static position directly in front of the goal, wrestling with his defender; while the other players station themselves around the center, simply passing the ball while waiting for him to get into position to receive the ball? Only water polo does this. Where is the creativity in placing five players in a half-circle around a center and simply passing the ball from person to person? Where is the excitement in watching this kind of game? The resulting extra-man attack now constitutes a third of our game. Where is the excitement in watching six players passing the ball against five players in a zone with their arms in the air?
LET’S LOOK AT BASKETBALL FOR COMPARISON
Let’s compare the role of the center in the fast paced and popular sport of basketball to the center in water polo. The basketball center has many offensive roles, including shooting, passing to drivers, and setting screens and picks. The stationary water polo center does none of these things. The basketball center facilitates the game. The water polo center inhibits the game by sitting in one spot in front of the goal, effectively stopping any other players from entering that area.
The basketball center in comparison is constantly moving around in the area in front of the basket. In fact, there is an area in front of the basket called a lane, where the center (or anyone else for that matter) is not allowed to stop for more than 3 seconds. If basketball can do this, then why can’t water polo? Why does the water polo center have to remain stationary? Why can’t the center become more mobile and move around in front of the goal? I will tell you the answer—-it is because water polo coaches are fixated on the static center, and passing the ball to him to draw an exclusion foul. Until coaches get over this fixation, we will never have movement in our game. It will continue to remain static and boring to watch.
Basketball is a multi-dimensional game of many different ways to score, whereas water polo is very one-dimensional. We do the same thing on every possession—stick the center in front of the goal and try to pass the ball to him to draw an exclusion foul. There is no reason why we can’t create a multi-dimensional attack for water polo that features different parts of the game. We are missing a style of play that makes sports around the world fun to watch and play, a style that involves movement and motion; and has many different facets.
PLAYING SMALL BALL
The Golden State Warriors won the NBA Basketball Championships last year without playing a true center in the last two games of their seven-game series; as they did many times during their season, setting a record for most wins in one season. This is called “small ball”. It is an exciting game to watch and to play. It is a combination of fast break, passing the ball to attacking teammates, driving to the basket, dunk shots, lay-ups, and perimeter 3-point shooting.
If a sport like a basketball, with it’s emphasis on height, can a team play small ball without a center, and win a championship, then why can’t water polo also play this way? At the very least, water polo could play both styles; or at least have the option of switching from one style to another during a single game. It would get our sport away from the “only one way to play the game” vertical style that every team in the world employs today.
The sport of water polo has become a slave to the “big man” center forward vertical style offense and zone shot blocking defense that favors bigger and taller players. To me, it is a misuse of some of our sport’s best athletes, the smaller 5’8” to 6’1” players with the physical attributes of speed and agility. Great players of the past, like Estiarte, probably would have difficulty fitting into today’s style of big-man water polo.
WHAT DOES THE CENTER ACTUALLY ACCOMPLISH?
In the past few years, I have actually studied the center position in detail. I have taken statistics of eight different games played by the top teams in the 2014 European Championships, two games played between the top four teams in the 2016 European Championships, and closer to home, six games played this year between the top four teams in the MPSF league of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). All of the games (14 games, 28 teams) that I observed in both Europe and the United States were played in the same “center-oriented” style that is common around the world.
In observing these games, I concentrated mainly on evaluating the center position. The question that I was trying to answer—–does playing the center on every possession really accomplish what it is supposed to do in terms of exclusions and goals scored? How many times during a game does the center actually receive the ball, and what are the results of this possession when he does receive the ball. Another aspect of the frontcourt attack that I wanted to look at was what happens when the ball does not get to the center. What are the other ways that teams are scoring goals with involving a center, and finally, what affect does the center have on the other ways that we score in our sport. Does the center add-to or take-away scoring chances from other players.
Keep in mind that the statistics are average figures from 14 games. Any team at any time could be well above or below the average. Most teams have the ball for about 40 times per game and score about ten goals per game on average. In about 99 percent of the possessions, teams played with a center. The ball actually was passed to the center about 1/3 of the 40 possessions, or about 12-13 passes per game out of 40 opportunities. More than half of the passes into the center were intercepted or stolen by the defense, or the center took a shot and did not score. These all count as turnovers that did not result in a positive outcome, accounting for about 8 turnovers per game from the center position. Of the remaining 4-5 possessions of the ball at center, there were on average about 4 exclusion fouls called per game and one 5-meter penalty per game.
In addition, other exclusion fouls in a game were called during the counterattack (2 per game), on the perimeter (2-3 per game), and at the center position (1-2 per game) while the ball was still on the perimeter, and before it was passed to the center. This was a total of 9-10 exclusion fouls per team per game. For purposes of this evaluation, we will add all exclusion fouls at center together, whether the ball was present or not; giving us a total of about 6 total exclusion fouls called at the center position, along with one 5-meter penalty.
It has been shown that most teams score goals on about one-third of their extra-man opportunities in a game; thus making it two goals from the six exclusions at center (2/6). Adding one 5-meter goal per game gives us three (3) goals scored as a result of the major fouls called at the center position. The final result is that in 40 possessions in which we have a center sitting in front of the goal, we get 3 goals per game. That means that we are getting a positive result (goals) on 7 percent of the possessions (3/40). To put it another way, is it worth putting a center in position 40 times a game for only 3 goals? It seems that this is not really a very efficient way to score goals.
Now I have to ask two questions. Is there anything we can do during the remaining possessions that will allow more goals to be scored, to increase our efficiency per possession; and how does the presence of the center affect the other ways of scoring goals besides from major fouls? To answer the first question, we first have to look at all of the possible ways to score goals in a water polo game, and then see how goals were actually scored in the games that I observed. Finally, we would like to see if there is a way to increase goal production from other means, besides from major fouls.
The possible ways to score goals in a game include from the extra-man (6 on 5), from penalty shots, from the center position, from outside shots on the perimeter, off of drives, and from the counterattack. In the 14 games that I observed, the primary source of scoring was from the extra-man (6 on 5), penalty shots, and from outside perimeter shooting for a total of about eight (8) goals scored per team per game on average.
From the total of ten (10) exclusion fouls from all sources called in a game, six (6) exclusions came from the center and four (4) exclusions came from other means, resulting in a total of 3-4 goals scored from extra-man if we assume 36 percent (1/3) scoring on the extra-man. Add one goal from penalty shots, and we get most of the remaining four goals coming from perimeter shooting against zone defenders dropping back in the center. These four (4) goals per game came from about 20 perimeter shots, an average shooting percentage of about 25% (4/20) from perimeter shooting. This means that 75 percent of the perimeter shots taken were blocked by a field player or the goalie, or missed the goal entirely.
Almost no goals in the games that I observed were scored from drives, from counterattacks, or from the center position. NOTE: Actual goals from counterattack, front court movement by attackers, or from the center did occur occasionally in games, especially in a few USA collegiate games; but were negligible in terms of having an effect on the statistical analysis of the average from 14 total games and over 550 possessions of the ball. In all reality, goals from other sources besides the extra-man and perimeter shooting, are not an important part of the modern water polo game.
In summarizing, most of the goals in a game came from the least mobile parts of the game, namely shooting from a vertical position in the pool on extra-man and from the perimeter; while hardly any goals were scored from a movement oriented counterattack, driving to the goal, and shots from the center just in front of the goal. I feel that we need to find ways to increase scoring from other more dynamic parts of the game, i.e. counterattack, driving and center shots; and not rely solely on less dynamic extra-man and perimeter shooting. We should be scoring more than 25 percent of our outside shots. Missing 80 percent of our shots, and then swimming in the other direction is again another boring part of the game.
DOES THE CENTER HINDER GOAL PRODUCTION?
Before we look at ways of increasing our goals from more dynamic scoring methods, we have to consider the second question from above, how much does the presence of the static center affect scoring from the other methods? Could we score goals from other methods if the center and his defender were not present in front of the goal? If we took the center outside of the equation and opened up space in front of the goal, would we get more goals from perimeter shots, from drives to the goal, and from the counterattack, than we are now getting?
We cannot really know the results unless we actually play some games with a more mobile center and a center placed in different positions in front of the goal, similar to basketball. I believe that we could create more goals, and get more movement in front of the goal if we did not cause an obstruction from the center position directly in front of the goal. I strongly feel the reason for this is that the center and his defender and the resulting three zone defenders take up so much space in front of the goal; that it is difficult to penetrate that space with shots and drivers. There simply is not enough room to maneuver or even shoot the ball.
In my game analysis, I actually stopped the video during many frontcourt attacks, and observed that with the center, center defender, the goalkeeper, and three zone defenders, we actually had six bodies stacked up in front of the goal (Coaches should try this sometime just to see how crowded it really is in the area in front of the goal). When teams play a “double-post” offense (two centers), the space in front of the goal is even more crowded, with as many as 7-8 players in front of the goal. Driving and shooting in the double post-attack were even more limited than in the single center offense.
It is my contention that the static center actually takes away scoring opportunities from other players because it promotes crowding and places obstruction in front of the goal. Players would be more willing to drive to the goal and shoot from the perimeter if they didn’t have to navigate through the 5 or 6 players now clustered in front of the goal. Even if a team only scored the same average number of goals in a game (8), at least the goals would come from a more interesting and more versatile attack; an attack that would incorporate more movement and add more excitement for the fans. Let’s look at different ways that teams can score goals in a multi-dimensional attack, an attack in which we do not simply place the center directly in front of the goal and pass him the ball.
CAN WE GET MORE GOALS FROM SHOOTING AND DRIVING?
Right now we are not converting on 75 percent of our shots from the perimeter. A lot of these shots are being blocked by the three zone defenders, the center defender, as well as the goalie. In addition to the many arms, we also have to shoot the ball around the bodies of both the center and the center-defender. Their blocking position in front of the goal requires shooting the ball in precise shooting lanes that make it easy to defend, and easy to block the shot by both the defender and the goalie. There is a reason why we only score 25 percent of our outside shots! How much easier would it be and how many more goals could we score if we created more space to shoot the ball by moving the center and center defender to a position on or outside a post; anywhere but sitting directly in front of the goal.
In the past, we could always score 3-4 goals per game from drives to the goal; but right now we do not have a driving game at any level of water polo. Once again, part of the reason is because of the presence and blocking position of the center and center defender. Imagine if we could move the center to one side of the goal; or back out to the perimeter, and we could drive to the open space created in front of the goal. It could become a more exciting man on man driving game with lots of motion and scoring from movement, rather than from static positions. The center himself could be part of the motion attack as well, presenting an additional challenge to the defense.
Can you imagine what players like Perrone of Spain/Brazil, Azevedo of the USA, and Varga of Hungary could do if they were allowed to drive and maneuver in a more open space in front of the goal? Think of how much more excitement they could create with one-on-one matchups similar to the ones that are created by the great one-on-one players in soccer. Scoring from movement is much more exciting than scoring from a static and vertical position on the perimeter. Think of how many more people in the world could play the game if the smaller player who can swim and move could once again get involved in the game. Water polo doesn’t just have to be only the “big-man’s” game that it is now.
CAN WE SCORE MORE COUNTERATTACK GOALS?
I will take the center argument one step further. It is my contention that the position of a static center has been the most important factor in stopping one of the most exciting parts of the game, the counterattack. We are scoring less on the counterattack because of the misplaced notion that teams have to keep the ball out of the center position to avoid an exclusion foul. So defenses have resorted to playing drop back zones in front of the center to prevent the center from obtaining the ball, instead of playing man-to-man defense.
Because of the difficulty of creating an open player on the counterattack from the drop back zone position, the counterattack as a way to score goals hardly exists anymore as an attacking weapon in our sport. Because we start from a defensive position that is back in the zone, we very rarely see 1 on 0, 2 on 1 and 3 on 2 counterattacks anymore. If teams would play more press defense, they could create more of these kinds of counterattacks. Once again, this would increase the excitement of the game with movement and one-on-one matchups; not to mention more goals scored on the counterattack.
INCREASE CENTER SCORING
By making the center more mobile, changing his position in front of the goal, and bringing him into a position in front of the goal later in the shot clock when teams don’t expect it, defenses would not be in position to drop back and steal the ball; and would many times be out of position to deliberately foul the center. This would create more opportunities for a mobile center to shoot the ball and score more goals, again adding more excitement to the game and another way to score goals.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO MAKE MEANINGFUL CHANGES TO THE GAME?
There really are only a few things that a sport has any control over, and that is the rules of the sport, and how the game is played. Other sports have helped their game become more popular by changing rules of the game. Basketball, for instance, saw an increase in fast-break scoring and scoring from drives to the basket, when they passed a rule that didn’t allow hand-checking by defenders. The problem with water polo is that we can’t count on FINA and the TWPC to make meaningful rule changes that will help the game become more popular.
If we can’t count on FINA, then we will have to rely on coaches and referees to dictate how we are going to play the game. Coaches, however, have their own agenda; and that is winning. It is my contention that we can do both—-win and also create an exciting game with a multi-dimensional offense. Coaches have got to become more aware of the kind of game that we are presenting to the world. Creating a game that people want to watch has to become just as important as winning. For the good of the sport, we have to do something?
I find it hard to believe that creative water polo coaches can’t come up with a better, and at the same time, more exciting way to play the game. When is the last time you have seen a water polo coach do something different and more creative than forming a half- circle and throwing the ball to a static center? When is the last time that you have seen a multi-dimensional attack that involves driving, center play, perimeter shooting, and counterattack?
Referees also have their own agenda that greatly affects the game and how it is played. On directions from FINA, referees are constantly making calls that hurt the movement game. The reluctance of referees to call holding away from the ball as an exclusion foul and the propensity of offensive (contra) fouls called against players who try to drive and move against a defender are just some of the ways that referees can stop any kind of motion and movement. Without the full cooperation of the referees and FINA, we will never be able to incorporate movement into our game. Who wants to drive when the referee will call a contra foul every time a player gets free or makes contact with a defender? If anything, they should err in favor of the attacker.
Not only are we in competition with the rest of the sports of the world; but we are also fighting for the survival of our sport in the world arena. If we don’t do something soon about presenting a more exciting and watchable game to the rest of the world, we could easily lose our Olympic status, as well as our International status.
First, we have to decide that we are not satisfied with the status quo and the way that the game is now being played. Then we have to create a game that is different from the game that is being played today, a game that will have more movement and action; and that will be exciting to watch and be enjoyed and played by everyone. We must do this even if we have to change a few traditions and the way that we have always played the game. We can still keep the basic ideas of this unique sport that is played in the water, but some changes have to be made, or I am afraid that we will lose water polo as a viable sport in the world.
My ideas on how we can make meaningful changes without changing the integrity of the game will be presented in future articles. I welcome dialogue and responses from others who have ideas on this subject.