A Matter of Advantage : Part II

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet

In Part I of this article we defined the meaning of “possession” and “position” in the context of water polo. “Possession” is the ability to pass, hold, advance or shoot the ball. “Position” is the ability of player to receive and/or control the ball in such a way that (s)he presents an immediate scoring treat. We also observed that “position” does not require a player to have possession, only that the player be situated such that, upon receiving the ball, an immediate goal could result. Let us now examine the new wording of WP7.3, the Advantage Principle, and compare its intended and actual effects on the game.




Up until last year, with the exception of a few very minor revisions, the wording of WP7.3 had remained essentially unchanged for several decades. This may seem somewhat surprising, given that, at one time or another, almost all the other rules had been revised, and always for the same stated purpose: to improve the game  both for the players and the audience. Although there were fundamental logical problems with the wording of WP7.3, including the fact that it read quite differently in different languages, the rule makers seemed reluctant to revise it:


WP 7.3 The referees shall refrain from declaring a foul if, in their opinion, such declaration would be an advantage to the offending player’s team. The referees shall not declare an ordinary foul when there is still a possibility to play the ball.


[Note. The referees shall apply this principle to the fullest extent. They should not, for example, declare an ordinary foul in favor of a player who is in possession of the ball and making progress towards his opponents’ goal, because this is considered to give an advantage to the offender’s team.]


            What stands out immediately from the old wording is the implication that advantage applied only at the point of the ball. The second sentence suggested it, while the Note described that exact circumstance in precise detail. If advantage applied only at the point of the ball, then the referees could safely ignore pretty much everything that went on away from and behind the ball, such as the holding on the perimeter and back court fouls in transition, because there was no advantage there. The defense could completely stifle any attempt at movement, break-aways and driving with no fear of consequences.


Conversely, referees could also ignore the wrestling at center, because once again there was no advantage there while the ball was elsewhere in the pool. However, when the ball was entered everything changed, but only for the attacker who could now foul with impunity because advantage somehow conferred the center immunity, and, as referees were instructed, the “possibility to play the ball” trumped any minor foul by the offense. Only major fouls committed by the attacker were to be whistled, but only as a simple turn-over. Ordinaries were simply ignored, and the occasional protests from coaches were answered with a shoulder shrug and a mumbled “Advantage”.


            It is no wonder therefore, that water polo degenerated into the game we have today. Some authors – in particular Coach Dettamanti – have remarked that, because the rules practically rewarded this style of play, it became unnecessary for coaches to develop any strategies other than put the biggest player at center and work for the exclusion. No driving, no cross-court passing to get the goalie out of position, no double or cross-posting; working for the exclusion at center and the direct shot have become the whole game.


            It is this author’s opinion that the primary reasons for this situation were the lack of uniformity in the interpretation and application of WP7.3, which in turn were caused by the lack of adequate referee training. While the Water Polo Academy tried to provide a uniform and comprehensible interpretation of WP7.3 under Loren’s guidance, general understanding and uniformity in application of the Advantage Principle has always been lacking.




            We are now confronted by a completely new wording of WP7.3 and a new set of interpretations, but without the benefit of Loren’s insight. Combined with all the other rule changes that have accompanied it, this new wording is meant to fix all the wrongs, not only with WP7.3 but with the game of water polo itself:


WP 7.3 The referees shall have discretion to award (or not award) any ordinary, exclusion or penalty foul, depending on whether the decision would advantage the attacking team. They shall officiate in favor of the attacking team by awarding of a foul or refraining from awarding a foul if, in their opinion, awarding the foul would be an advantage to the offending player’s team.


[Note. The referees shall apply this principle to the fullest extent.]


From the first few words we notice a dramatic difference: the words “shall refrain” have been replaced with the “shall have discretion”. This is a significant change, because it implicitly returns control over the manner in which the rules are applied back to the referees. Referees are no longer required to follow a prescribed course of action based on their “opinion” (in reality interpretations which often changed somewhat arbitrarily); rather, they are directed to use their discretion in the overall game circumstance of the moment, as long as the outcome is favorable to the attacking team. The next sentence is even more precise: if before there was a condition attached, namely “the possibility to play the ball”, now referees are directed to always whistle in favor of the attacking team.


The rule makers went one step further: the old WP7.3 (and quite a few of the other rules) read differently in different languages, sometimes with unexpected consequences. Because of the linguistic differences, the FINA TWPC often felt it necessary to provide interpretations and instructions during competition, which often meant that later games were officiated quite differently than the elimination rounds. The new wording of WP7.3 and that of other rules have been revised to read practically the same. This will hopefully eliminate the need for FINA to change interpretations and instructions in the middle of tournaments, which will hopefully result in less confusion.


So far, all this looks like a good thing: more precise definitions, less linguistic differences, less possibility for confusion and misinterpretation, more consistent application of the rules should all add up to a better game, both for the players and especially for the audience. Well, not so fast…


To begin with, the rule makers seem to have forgotten a few things about the game. It is well know (and WP Analytics probably can prove beyond a doubt) that the highest scoring opportunity in water polo is a penalty shot. While there are several circumstances for which a penalty shot is awarded, by far the most common is when the defense commits an act which either prevents a probable goal or takes advantage away from the attacking team. Since the purpose of a penalty is to restore the advantage taken away by the defense’s actions, their inclusion of a penalty in the list of fouls which referees may or may not award doesn’t make sense.


Secondly, while they make it pretty clear that they want referees to “officiate in favor of the attacking team”, in the second sentence the rule makers bring back the confusion of WP7.3’s old wording by introducing a second object, “the offender’s team”, in a sentence where the main object, “the attacking team”, was already defined. Presumably, the intent was to strengthen the premise that advantage must always be given to the attacking team, in which case the mention of the “offender’s team” is confusing because the offender could also be an attacker. In this case officiating in favor of the attacking team is the same as giving an advantage to the offender’s team, so the two premises are contradictory.


On the other hand, by eliminating the reference to “a possibility to play the ball”, the new wording effectively eliminates any implication that advantage applies only at the point of the ball. Advantage applies to the entire attacking team, which of course includes the player in possession of the ball. However, it also includes any player situated such that (s)he could be an immediate goal threat when (s)he receives the ball (which we defined as “position” in Part I), the driver trying to come up the side and the attacker in the back court breaking away during transition.


To summarize, the new wording of WP7.3 directs referees to protect the advantage of the attacking team. If a foul is committed, the referees have discretion to either award or not award the foul, as necessary to prevent giving an advantage to the offender’s team. Unlike the older wording, which suggested that advantage is at the point of the ball, the new wording makes no such implication; a team has advantage simply by being on the attack.




In Part III we will look at the application of WP7.3 in several of the situations described by oldtimer in his video clips.