The Really, Really New FINA Rules – Really…

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet
08/01/14

For the past year since August 2013, FINA has released not one, not two but a total of four sets of new rules and interpretations. This probably is a record in and of itself, but just to make sure that water polo stands alone as the decidedly least decisive institution of its kind, last month FINA once again announced the coming of sweeping changes aimed at – as if anybody had to guess – “improving the game”.

The previous set of changes was presented to the world as follows:

“These rule changes have the intent of producing more movement, creativity and explosive speed in the game. Furthermore these rule changes will also assist in removing static situations and providing more clarity for the correct application of the rules.”

This past June the FINA TWPC and executive leadership met in Dubai, which in addition to being both exotic and enormously expensive, apparently also is such a hotbed of water polo that the conference couldn’t be held somewhere else. Like Dubrovnik, Budapest, Newport Beach or some other place where people actually play water polo. Although “official” details are still sketchy, several water polo websites published sufficient accounts to get a good perspective.

FINA’s Executive Director, Cornel Marculescu, explained that these new rules are necessary because:

“We must renew our sports. Swimming can’t change, diving will see the addition of 28-metre diving to make the sport more spectacular, while synchronized swimming will have a double duet as a new discipline. Therefore, we should also make some changes in water polo, as well.”

Of course, this makes perfect sense: since swimming cannot change, let’s change water polo instead. And while change is good, sometimes, change for the sake of change seldom is.

The new rules ratified in Dubai are not all new; some of them have been proposed and rejected before. But the urgency with which they were approved, only four months after they were proposed at the Water Polo Congress in Cancun, suggests that the rule makers are desperately trying to find ways to make water polo more “interesting and spectacular”. Let’s now look at the really, really new rules in no particular order.

Women teams participating in the Olympic Games will increase from 8 to 12 –This is, in this author’s opinion, a historic moment for water polo, and the only rule of consequence adopted in the past two decades. It answers the call for parity that was often heard on Water Polo Planet and other forums, but which for years has fallen on seemingly deaf ears. The most optimistic outcome is that this change will convince the Eastern European potentates that women’s water polo is to be taken seriously. On the other hand, it may also make it tougher for the US women’s team, which for decades has reaped the benefits of both Title IX and the Europeans’ general lack of interest. However, even if our ladies have to work harder, the mere fact that FINA has changed its long-standing position on the subject is great for the sport.

The playing field will be reduced to 25 meters – This change has been debated multiple times, and duplicates the similar reduction adopted by the NCAA last year. The long-standing proponents of this change, who include water polo legends such as Wolf Wigo and Tamas Farago, contend that it will likely have a positive effect on the game, which is particularly true if the possession clock stays the same. Reducing the field of play by only 5 meters actually reduces the length of the transition by 20% and increases the available shot clock by 25% (see link), something which coaches will surely take advantage of. However, as it was observed in the NCAA after the shorter course was adopted, a shorter transition seems to favor the better-conditioned team, particularly when it comes to counter-attacks.

Rosters will be cut down from 13 players to 11 players per team – This change seems innocuous enough since until 2004 the rosters were smaller, and no other Olympic sport has rosters with nearly equal numbers of starters and substitutes. However, the explanation that this will result in “space for more countries in the major competitions” is something that only Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss could have come up with. Unless of course FINA is referring to the number of seats available on team busses.

On the other hand, the change represents an 18% reduction in available Olympic berths which is not trivial, particularly a time when other sports such as soccer are contemplating increasing their rosters.

Smaller ball size for men – FINA is correct in that it will provide for better grip and higher shooting speed, however just about everyone who has played with the smaller ball at the highest levels seems to agree it’s a bad idea. The better grip gives the shooter a disproportionate advantage in ball control and shot power. Anecdotal evidence from Hungary suggests that the smaller ball resulted in a shot speed increase from an average of 52mph (84km/h) to nearly 58mph (93km/h) or 11%. However, since the kinetic energy increases with the square of the velocity, the momentum and resultant force of impact increase by over 23%, which could make the goalie’s job outright dangerous.

Teams will be reduced from 7 to 6 players – This is a bad idea all-around. Firstly, there is the obvious 17% reduction in the opportunity of playing in any given game. Secondly, when combined with the decrease in rosters from 13 to 11, the outcome is a 27% reduction in the chance of playing in any given international or Olympic game. This probably is of little consequence in the USA, since most players’ careers end right after college, but it could have a negative effect elsewhere.

The less obvious consequence of this change is the almost certain increase in the wrestling at center and resultant exclusions. It won’t take long for coaches and players to figure out that, unlike today’s 6-on-5 where there’s a defender at 2m between the goal posts, the 5-on-4 automatically puts an attacker at that location, square in the middle of the goal. This fact, combined with the smaller ball, will significantly increase the man-up scoring percentage, thus incentivizing offensive play at center which results in an exclusion. Since the old rules (well, last year’s new rules anyway) already make it disadvantageous for the defense to hold on the perimeter (although from watching the European Championships last month one would think they forgot to teach that in referee school), most exclusions will likely come from the center, and the defense will likely make the center work hard for them, hence the almost certainty that the wrestling will increase.

As to FINA’s reasoning that reducing the number of players is necessary due to the shorter pool, so that the players will still have enough space to move, Dilbert would likely have remarked – much to the Pointy-Haired Boss’s astonishment – that only the length of the field has changed, and not the width.

***

Although this article is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I am aware that some of these changes are motivated by the perception that water polo – along with other non-mainstream sports – is in trouble. For many reasons water polo truly isn’t a spectator sport, but the IOC demands a return on investment and FINA is compelled to deliver. This is no easy task, since historically water polo has been a loss-leader. That it has survived recent turbulence is probably due to the FINA / LEN “old boy” network. Though we may disagree with their European-centric views and their other faults, real or perceived, we have to admit they are the very same people who build water polo over the past half century, and continue to be concerned with the growth – or perhaps the very survival – of our sport.

Sadly, those people more and more are starting to leave us. Last month saw the passing of Anatolie “Tolea” Grinţescu, the legendary Romanian player whose involvement in the sport – both domestically and internationally – spanned sixty years. “Tolea” was coach and mentor to many generations of players, but first of all he was a friend. He leaves behind a legacy without equal in Romanian water polo. “Să-i fie ţărâna uşoară” (may he rest in peace).