FINA Approves New Water Polo Rules; More Changes Likely

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FINA President Julio C. Maglione at the 2018 World Water Polo Conference. Photo Courtesy: FINA

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

In a little less than an hour on Monday in Hangzhou, China, decades of international water polo convention was overturned by FINA. After experimenting last summer and fall with proposed changes, twelve new or augmented rules were overwhelmingly approved at a FINA Extraordinary Congress. According to a FINA press release, of 110 national federations represented, 161 delegates voted to approve the rule changes, with only six dissenting votes.

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“In recent years, we undertook a serious reflection around the game,” Julio C. Maglione, FINA President, said in a statement released after the vote. “Meanwhile, some changes were made, but we needed, with the contribution of the water polo community, to do more in order to align this discipline with what is currently offered in a very competitive international sport environment.”

The vote puts into motion full implementation of these changes in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a circumstance that will be felt as early as next spring, when the men’s and women’s Europa Cup as well as the World League Finals will be played under the new rules—as will water polo at the 18th FINA World Championships next July in Gwangju, Korea.

The changes were mostly applauded by key players in the sport.

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Dragan Jovanovic, Executive Director of World Water Polo Coaches Association. Photo Courtesy: FINA

“We are very happy that these important rules changes have been passed in a big majority and almost without the opposition,” Dragan Jovanovic, Executive Director of World Water Polo Coaches Association (WWPCA), said in a statement. “It shows a huge satisfaction with the work that was done in the last year and a unity in the water polo community that these changes are needed and welcomed.”

[2018 FINA Budapest Water Polo Conference: On The Record with Dragan Jovanovic]

The WWPCA, consisting of some of the sport’s top coaches, was an integral part of the process for reforming water polo. WWPCA coaches worked with members of FINA’s Technical Water Polo Committee—including Andrey Kryukov, FINA Bureau Liaison—to draft the rule changes that were ratified in Hangzhou.

[On The Record with FINA’s Andrey Kryukov; Water Polo’s Future Rests with Him]

Expanding on President Maglione’s comments, Jovanovic emphasized that Monday’s vote is part of a process of necessary change for a sport that in recent years has been threatened with banishment from the Olympics.

“This is a big step for water polo but only the first step,” Jovanovic added. “We hope that next steps of change in water polo will be in development around the world, marketing, competition structure and necessary investment. Without further steps, this big step of changing the rules will be meaningless.”

“The process to get to this point was far more inclusive and transparent than it has been,” said Adam Krikorian, Head Coach, U.S. Senior Women’s National Team. “Although I don’t believe we have arrived at the final stage, I do think we have made some positive steps in the right direction”

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Adam Krikorian celebrating Team USA’s golden moment at 2017 FINA World Championships. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

The implementation of new rules for FINA competition threatens to roil the sport in the European professional ranks. Recently, the Croatian Water Polo Federation—in unison with its Hungarian, Italian and Serbian counterparts—petitioned LEN to immediately adapt the new rules.  LEN (Ligue Européenne de Natation) oversees competition for dozens of men’s and women’s teams, including Champions League play, which will take a brief hiatus later this month before resuming on January 9th. The Croatian proposal is to make the rules switch now so as to benefit European national teams in the run up to qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

[FINA World Cup Underscores Big Changes Ahead for International Water Polo]

The Italian League has already agreed to implement the new rules in its 2019 – 2020 campaign, which begins next fall. Currently, the Champions League and the Euro Cup has declined to implement the new rules before the 2019 – 2020 season, as teams are in the midst of play under the current rules

Dante Dettamanti—outspoken in his belief that the sport must evolve to allow nations other than Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro and Serbia to successfully compete for Olympic gold—believes these new rules don’t go far enough to change the current competitive imbalance. Collectively, Balkan countries have captured more than half of all Olympic golds, and the last six in a row.

A participant in a FINA-organized conference last May in Budapest charged with proposing major changes for the sport, Dettamanti is adamant that the rules just ratified are only the beginning of a much need transformation of polo.

[Notes from FINA: 2018 World Water Polo Conference in Budapest]

“[T]his is ONLY a first step,” he said via email. “Most of the rules just approved are cosmetic, and don’t really change the game that much. Changing the reset clock to 20 seconds, giving a penalty for position inside 6 meters, and two time-outs are the biggest changes.”

STANFORD, CA - DECEMBER 2: Brian Darrow, Jeff Guyman, Matt Moser, Todd Snider, head coach Dante Dettamanti, Mike Derse, Nick Ellis, assistant coach Ben Quittner, Tony Azevedo, Onno Koelman, Reed Gallogly, Mark Amott, Peter Hudnut, Jeff Nesmith, Pasi Dutton, Wolf Wigo, and Nathan Alldredge of the Stanford Cardinal after Stanford's 8-5 win over the UCLA Bruins for the NCAA water polo championship on December 12, 2001 at Deguerre Pool in Stanford, California.

Dante Dettamanti and the 2001 Stanford men’s water polo team—NCAA champions. Photo Courtesy: David Gonzales

Expressing opposition to the a number of the new rules, Dettamanti—who coached at Stanford for 25 years, winning eight NCAA men’s championships—said: “I don’t agree with moving the shot after foul to 6 meters. We should be making it easier to score, not harder. Allowing that person to fake and put the ball on the water after the foul is negated by moving the location of the shot one more meter away from the goal.

“The substitution on the fly at half court, the goalie able to shoot the ball, and shooting from the corner throw don’t change the game at all,” he added. “These rules do not make the changes that are really necessary in the game. It gives teams a few more shooting opportunities during the game; but will not create any movement or make the game more dynamic, which is really what is needed.

Then, striking a conciliatory tone, Dettamanti added: “Hopefully more important changes will come after the 2020 Olympics in Japan.”

Following are the rule changes approved by the FINA Extraordinary Congress:

  • The possession time to be reset to 20 seconds after:
    a) a corner throw awarded;
    b) a rebound after a shot which does not cause change of possession and
    c) after an exclusion
  • Inside the 6m area, when a player is swimming with and/or holding the ball and is impeded (attacked) from behind during an attempt to shoot, a penalty foul must be awarded (unless only the ball is touched by the defender)
  • Free throw shall be taken from the location of the ball (except if the foul is committed inside the 2m line)
  • A goal may be scored from a free throw awarded outside 6 meters from a direct shot or after fake or dribble or putting the ball on the water. (Referees shall use signals if the foul happened outside the 6m line.)
  • A player taking a corner throw may shoot directly or swim and shoot without passing or pass to another player
  • An additional substitution re-entry area will be at any place between the goal line and the center field line for flying substitutions
  • Each team may request 2 time-outs during the game at any time while possessing the ball – and a time-out calling device (button) should be used to call a time-out
  • The goalkeeper is allowed to move beyond and touch the ball past the half distance line
  • There shall be a 3-minute interval between the second and third period
  • The use of audio equipment by the game referees
  • The use of game video monitoring system to identify and sanction incidents of brutality or extreme violence that occurred but were not appropriately punished or identified during a game
  • The use of video monitoring system to determine goal or no goal (where available).