Part IA Matter of Advantage : Part I

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet

Last year, FINA enacted a number of rule changes meant to improve the game, chief amongst them being the complete rewording of WP7.3. The new wording was meant to clearly define the intent of the Advantage Principle and what is expected of referees. Furthermore, the new wording was designed to be accessible to the uninitiated, such that if a parent or casual viewer were curious enough to read it, they should have no problem understanding what WP7.3 was meant to say. At least that was the intent.

Unrelated, over the past two months or so, oldtimer posted a number of video clips on Water Polo Planet (WPP) under the generic topic of "You Make the Call". These clips presented a number of game situations where a foul was presumably committed, and the readers were invited to comment on what was the appropriate call in each case. At least that was the intent. We'll come back to those clips later on, so there is no need to go into detail now.

However, there is one important thing about those "You Make the Call" threads worthy of note: it is apparent that, while both referees and "lay people" seem to have a general understanding of the rules, there are wide-ranging views as to how they should be applied in a particular game situation, and why. From the posts on WPP it became obvious that the many rule changes are to blame.


Years ago, when Water Polo Academy (WPA) was still in operation, the rule changes would not have presented a major difficulty since every active referee was required to take a yearly review. Today however, there is insufficient referee instruction available to ensure uniformity in the understanding, interpretation and application of the rules. While some of the rule changes are somewhat "organic" and perhaps self-explanatory, WP7.3 is one rule where the community could have greatly benefitted from Loren's analytical teaching. Although it is impossible to even try condensing a five-day course into the length of this article, let us at least attempt to apply some of WPA's insights to the new wording of WP7.3.

However, before we continue on to WP7.3 there are a number of concepts that we need to define. Firstly, WP7.3 itself: it is not a rule per-se; rather, it is a principle which establishes the framework under which all the other rules are to be applied. This is why WP7.3 doesn't have a prescribed applicability in a particular instance, like a minor foul does, but instead it modulates the manner in which referees react to a foul based on the overall game situation.

Secondly, the concept of "possession": in the game of water polo there are only four things that a player can do with the ball, namely: pass, hold, advance (move) or shoot it. (Well, in reality there is a fifth: lose it to the opposing team.) The order of these actions is not arbitrary; they are listed in the increasing probability of scoring a goal. But in order to do any of these actions, a player must first have possession of the ball. Possession is mentioned multiple times in the rule book, yet it is not defined anywhere. Here therefore is our first definition: possession is the ability to pass, hold, advance or shoot the ball. The team which is doing any of these four actions is on the attack, while the team which is trying to prevent these actions and gain control of the ball is on defense.

Recently, there has been some debate as to whether a ball in flight, or a ball which lands in open water after being blocked, deflected or rebounding off the goal is still considered in possession of the team that had control last. The answer to all these questions is: no. Once the ball has left the shooter's hand it is no longer in possession since the attacking team can no longer pass, hold, advance or shoot it until it reaches its intended destination.

However, if a ball in flight doesn't reach its intended destination but instead is deflected or blocked and lands in open water, away from any player's immediate control, is not considered in possession until a player from either team gains control of it. Because a ball in flight is not in any team's possession, neither team can legally call a time-out. This is necessarily so because one cannot predict where a blocked, deflected or rebound ball will land, or who will be able to gain control at that time.

If a ball in flight is not in possession, how then does one score a goal? WP defines a goal as:

WP 14.1 A goal shall be scored when the entire ball has passed fully over the goal line, between the goal posts and underneath the crossbar

Notice that possession is not necessary at all; as long as the ball crosses the goal line legally, a goal will be awarded against that team. This is why a self goal is always attributed to the player of the opposing team nearest to the goal, though (s)he may not even have touched the ball.

Having defined possession, let us now turn our attention to the concept of "position". Although position is widely used in water polo (along with equivalent terms such as "inside water" and "ball side"), it isn't defined anywhere either. The accepted meaning is as follows: a player situated such that (s)he could score a goal is said to have position. Simple enough, but unfortunately insufficient.

To begin with, a player cannot score a goal if (s)he doesn't have the ball, so logically in order to have position one should also have possession. This is true in most cases, but not all. The most obvious case of position is that of the attacker inside 5m facing the goal, ball in hand and taking a shot. Another obvious case is the center, ball in hand, making a turn towards the goal. Clearly both have possession and both are situated such that they could score a goal, but in addition they also are an immediate scoring threat.

Likewise, an attacker who has possession and is advancing towards the opponent's goal on a break-away, with no defenders between her and the goal. It doesn't matter if the attacker is 5 or 15m from the goal; the fact that she has possession and there are no defenders to block his advance automatically confers him position.

A player without the ball can also have position, provided that: 1. she can receive and control the ball; and: 2. She take a shot on goal once she has received the ball. This is always the case with the center, whose real job in water polo is not to draw an exclusion (that is another topic for another day), but rather to score or set-up the play. Another example is an attacker inside 5m high out of the water, facing the goal and ready to receive a pass from a wing or corner throw. The driver coming inside 5m with a defender in tow also has position, provided that there are no defenders between her and the goal and the ball situated such that an entry pass can be made.

However, what if a player in possession who is situated such that (s)he could score a goal, passes or simply holds the ball, without a clear intent to shoot? Such a player clearly isn't an immediate scoring threat, and therefore doesn't have position.

In summary, possession is the ability to pass, hold, advance or shoot the ball and it applies to the entire team. Position is the ability of an individual player to receive, control and shoot the ball such that they present an immediate scoring treat. Position does not require that the individual player have possession all the time, but (s)he has to be situated such that, upon receiving the ball, an immediate goal could result.

Can an attacker in possession lose position without being fouled? The answer is: yes. If an attacker in possession and with position is forced to move away from the goal by a defender who presses hard but doesn't foul, then (s)he has lost position. The premise of position is to be a situated such that one is an immediate scoring threat; an attacker moving away from the goal is not.

Similarly, a center who receives an entry pass that's outside of his arm's reach and closer to a defender who immediately tries to gain control of the ball. Evidently, position is lost once possession is lost to the opposing team.


In Part II we will examine the new wording of WP7.3 and define the fourth and last concept, that of "advantage". If any readers still have their notes from the WPA Advantage course, I highly recommend that you read them. Despite the revised rules and rewording of WP7.3, the concepts laid out by Loren in those notes are still very much current.