Too Many Whistles...Or Not

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet

Last month I wrote an article titled: “Too Many Whistles” which tried to address the universally-accepted premise that the way today’s water polo rules and the way the game is played make it subject to way too much referee intervention. This intervention is in the form of whistles of course, which interrupt the flow of the game, cause confusion both in the pool and in the stands, and make the game confusing and unenjoyable to the casual viewer.

Coincidentally, over the past month there have been new discussions on WPP, on the subject of how to improve the game. The discussions were spurred by demonstration games played at the Fisher Cup which used experimental rules that FINA is evaluating for potential adoption. Not surprisingly, several favorite issues reared their ugly heads: the wrestling at center and the number of fouls among them. It is generally accepted that both issues are due to the way the rules are written and interpreted today, and that the “old game”, while not entirely free from them, was certainly “better”.

I too share that same view, and often lament the loss of rules which I felt made the game better in some way. Chief among them is the three fouls at center rule, which in my opinion created the opportunity for a more dynamic game in general, while at the same time creating more opportunity for “natural” goals. As far as I and others remember, the job of the center was not to draw exclusions but to make plays, and games were won not on 6-on-5 but on spectacular plays by greats like Farago, Estiarte and Wigo, to name only a few.

However, as one gets older one cannot rely only on memory, particularly when it comes to issues of some significance, so I decided to take a brief look at a few fundamental statistics. Consequently, since the pertinent data is not easily available from FINA or the IOC, I spent a few nights searching for and watching water polo games on the web, counting the fouls and goals.


The first game I chose for this purpose is from the 1980 Moscow Olympics, between the former USSR and Hungary. This game is a great reference point because it is available in its entirety from several (but equally poor quality) sources. The game consisted of four, 5-minute quarters, and was played using the old three fouls at center rule that I am so fond of. Furthermore, myself being from Eastern Europe, I also remembered that game as yet another example of machinations on the part of the “Evil Empire” (as Ronald Reagan referred to the USSR), who corrupted the officials and conspired to steal the game and the chance of a gold medal from the Hungarians.

After spending the better part of two nights trying to make out the referee’s whistles from background noise, I finally compiled the table below:


The game ended in regular time with a final score of 5-4 in favor of the former USSR. Nothing really stands out, except perhaps for the two missed penalties (one by Tamas Farago) and the seemingly low number of fouls. The number of goals scored on 6-on-5 is slightly over 50% of total, which goes somewhat counter with my recollection.

However, as the game was played with 5-minute quarter, in order to make a meaningful comparison with today’s game, I scaled all the figures by 8/5. Although linear scaling is not entirely accurate, it does provide a first-order approximation suitable for our purpose:


Although the number of ordinaries and exclusions did go up considerably to 110 and 19, respectively, surely they must still be smaller than those in today’s game.

One thing which I have to admit, after watching the game several times in a row, is that my recollection was only partially correct. Although there were a number of instances where I scratched my head, there were just as many instances when the Hungarian team, including my childhood idol Tamas Farago and the equally talented Gerendas, Horkai and Csapo, failed to capitalize on man-up situations, missed a crucial penalty and simply played below expectations. Politics aside, one does not do that against Kabanov, Mshvernieradze and Sharonov, and expects to win. So much for conspiracy theories.

The next game looked at is the gold medal game between Spain and Italy from 1992 in Barcelona. This was a very special game as Spain had never finished in the top three before, and Italy was coming back from a dry spell going back to 1976. The Spanish team was led by the legendary Manuel Estiarte. The game was played with 7-minute quarters but without three fouls at center (that rule was abandoned in 1984), and has the distinction of being the longest Olympic water polo game ever played with six periods of overtime. The data is shown in the following table:


Italy eventually won by one goal in the sixth overtime. The figures for regular time are higher than those of the 1980 USSR – Hungary game, which is to be expected due to the longer quarters. What is surprising however is that there were more ordinaries in only 18 minutes of extra time than in the 28 minutes of regular time.

When the figure are scaled for an 8-minute period, the following results:


The number of ordinary and exclusion fouls increases by about 15%, which is nowhere near the equivalent figure of 60% used for the USSR – Hungary game.

Some impressions about the game itself: although at the time I was somewhat disappointed to see Spain and Estiarte lose, it is clear to me now that, just like Hungary in 1980, the Spanish team and in particular Estiarte did not come through when it counted. Of note is the fact that the number of goals scored on 6-on-5 is somewhat lower at only 33.3% of total, with both teams missing several game-winning opportunities. However, there were many spectacular “natural goals” on both sides, and the Spanish team made up for this loss with a great victory against Croatia in 1996.

Last I looked at the 2012 London Olympics gold medal game between Croatia and Italy. This game pinned Alessandro Campagna, the star of the 1992 Italian gold-medal team and now coach of the Italian national team, against his former coach Radko Rudic. Despite an early lead by the Italians, Croatia won with a score of 8-6 in the end. Here are the relevant figures:


The game was played with 8-minute quarters, so there is no need to scale any figures. The number of ordinaries (99) and exclusions (16) is comparable to both 1980 (110 and 19) and 1992 (96 and 19), as is the scoring percentage for 6-on-5. One of the exclusions was a double and counted as such above.


I started this little project with the conviction that in the “old game” there were fewer fouls, fewer whistles and less wrestling at center. After all, I knew this from personal experience. After spending several nights watching game videos and counting whistles, I realized that my recollections weren’t entirely correct. To begin with, while the number of fouls (and hence whistles) was indeed lower, that was mainly due to the fact that the play periods were shorter. It is clear even from the few examples above that, when scaled for the same time frame the numbers of ordinaries and exclusions do not differ by the 40-50% that some people claim. In fact, under the old rules there were more ordinaries than now. Those were the ordinaries at center, which have since been replaced with the current match of catch-as-catch-can. The number of goals scored on 6-on-5 was also reasonably the same, despite the nostalgic view to the contrary that I and many others have shared. So after many rule changes, countless interpretations and experiments, it seems that in the end the outcome always is pretty much the same. Why? I don’t really know, and I doubt that anyone else knows either. For now we’ll just have to continue to experiment, discuss, argue and analyze, until someone comes up with an answer. However, since some of those people at FINA looking for answers today are the very same people who were looking for the very same answers in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, I doubt that much of consequence will change.


I had originally intended to include the gold medal games from 1984 and 1988 in this analysis. Both times the US and Yugoslavian teams which met in the final where substantially the same, and it would have made a great reference for additional analysis. However, courtesy of NBC Sports and their peacock, neither game is available on the web in its entirety. I did compile partial statistics for the 1988 Seoul gold medal game and extrapolated to the equivalent of four complete quarters which I am including below, but for obvious reasons these figures cannot be used for comparison. The 1988 game also has the unique distinction of being the first Olympic water polo final ever to go into extra time.