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Water polo is a team sport played in a swimming pool, in which two teams of seven players each try to score goals in the opposition’s goal, using only their hands to throw the ball.

The sport originated in England in the 19th century as an adaptation of underwater rugby, and subsequently became popular in several European and American countries. The game has even been an Olympic sport since 1900.

In this complete and up-to-date guide, you’ll learn a little more about the history, rules and fundamentals of water polo, a sport that requires skill, endurance and team spirit.

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History of water polo

Water polo is a team sport that originated in the United Kingdom at the end of the 19th century. Its creation is attributed to William Wilson, a Scottish swimmer who developed the sport as a form of training.

The first recorded match took place in London in 1870. Initially, the sport was played in lakes and rivers, but soon spread to swimming pools and gained popularity in other European countries.

The sport quickly spread to the United States, where the first official match was played almost two decades later, in 1888. Later, water polo was included in the Olympics for the first time in 1900 in Paris.

The rules of the game evolved over time, with significant changes in the 1920s to make the sport faster and more exciting.

During the 20th century, water polo continued to grow in popularity and became an international sport. The International Swimming Federation (FINA) was founded in 1908 and began regulating the sport worldwide. The World Water Polo Championships were established in 1973.

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How does water polo work?

Como funciona o polo aquático
How does water polo work?

In water polo, each team consists of seven players, six line players and a goalkeeper. Substitutions are unlimited, but players must move in and out of the designated area near the halfway line.

The aim of the game is to score more goals than the opposing team. This is done by throwing the ball at the opposing team’s floating goal. The goal is defended by the goalkeeper, who has the task of blocking the opposition’s shots.

The match is divided into four halves, usually lasting seven minutes each, although the length can vary

During the game, athletes use advanced swimming techniques, tactical strategies and precision passing and shooting to create goal-scoring opportunities.

Physical intensity, therefore, is a defining feature of water polo, as players need to move quickly in the water, face opposing opposition and execute effective moves.

The rules of the sport also include fouls and temporary exclusions for athletes who commit offences. Penalty kicks are also awarded in certain situations.

Water polo rules

  • Number of players | Each team has seven players on the pitch, six of whom are outfield players and a goalkeeper;
  • Duration of matches | Matches are divided into four halves, each lasting seven or eight minutes, depending on the regulations;
  • Start of the match | The game begins with a sprint in the middle of the pool, in which one player from each team tries to reach the ball first;
  • Movement | Athletes may not hold, pull or push opponents underwater, except when they are holding the ball. Contact is allowed, but there are rules about its intensity;
  • Offences | Fouls are awarded by the referees for offences such as obstruction, holding the opponent or touching the ball with both hands. Players can be temporarily excluded from the game;
  • Penalties | These are awarded in specific situations, allowing an athlete to directly attack the opponent’s goal from a fixed distance;
  • Substitutions | Players can be substituted in an unlimited number of ways, but this must take place in a specific area close to the halfway line;
  • Goalkeepers | Have specific rules about their position and movement. They can touch the ball with any part of their body, but cannot hold it for more than thirty seconds.

What’s the water polo pool like?

piscina de polo aquático
What’s the water polo pool like?

The water polo pool has specific dimensions. The length varies between 25 and 30 metres, while the width is 20 metres. The goals are placed at both ends of the perimeter.

The goals consist of vertical and horizontal beams, similar to football goals, but adapted for the aquatic environment.

The width between the goalposts is 3 metres, while the height of the crossbar is 0.9 metres above the surface of the water.

The depth of the pool must be at least 1.8 metres in order to provide enough space for the players to make submerged movements and allow for an adequate playing area.

A half-court line, often marked by a buoy or submerged line, divides the water polo pool into two equal parts.

There are also lines marked 5 metres away from the goals, indicating the penalty area for 5-metre throws.

Lines 2 metres from the goals delimit the exclusion area, where corner kicks take place and players cannot remain for more than 20 seconds without taking part in the game.

Finally, the area between the 5-metre lines and the halfway line is considered the neutral zone, where kick-offs and restarts take place after goals have been scored.

Water polo equipment

Water polo athletes wear a range of equipment during official matches to ensure safety and proper performance in the game.

Players wear numbered caps for identification during the match. Usually made of silicone, they help protect the head and maintain visibility in the pool.

In addition, mouthguards are essential to protect the teeth during situations of physical contact in the water, helping to prevent injuries to the mouth and jaw area.

Finally, athletes wear special clothing to stay underwater, such as swimming trunks (for men) and swimming costumes (for women).

Water polo at the Olympics

polo aquatico olimpiadas
Water polo at the Olympics

Water polo has been part of the Olympic Games since the Paris Games in 1900, although it was already included as a demonstration sport in 1896.

The competition at the Olympics involves men’s and women’s teams. The teams compete in a tournament format, where they play knockout matches until the gold, silver and bronze medallists are determined.

The rules of water polo in the competition are governed by the International Swimming Federation (FINA). The matches are held in specific pools with appropriate dimensions and characteristics.

With 16 medals, 9 gold, 3 silver and 4 bronze, Hungary is the major power in the sport. It is followed by Italy, which has 3 golds, 2 silvers and 3 bronzes.

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