For years soccer enthusiasts have whined about the sport’s stateside unpopularity. They complain about a lack of real coverage and game broadcasts. But…they also have Fox Soccer channel and numerous leagues to follow with — conceivably — a game to watch almost every day. Water polo fans have no such luck. Outside of collegiate level (usually club team) events, watching water polo is something fans in the U.S. might get to do every other year if they’re lucky. Fortunately, this is one of those years.
The Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA), aquatic sports’ governing body, holds its World Championships in Melbourne, Australia beginning March 19th and running through April 1st. This begs the question, “Why should I care about water polo?”
Reason number 1: It’s tougher than any other team sport you’re likely to watch on television.
Water polo is played in no less than 10 feet of water, requiring players to swim or tread water for the duration of play. Players cannot touch the bottom or sides of the pool. In FINA competition, that’s 32 minutes of constant motion, save a short halftime. Even soccer players, notoriously fit by most standards, can’t claim that.
Prior to games, officials actually examine the finger and toenails of each player, with clippers at the ready to help avoid bloodshed. Players are regularly in contentious, close contact with each other. Hand checking is legal to the point where actually dunking a ball handling player under the water is merely an “ordinary foul,” that doesn’t result in a hockey-style power play. If the player doesn’t have the ball, dunking leads to a kickout.
In the sport’s early history, players essentially wrestled their way from one goal to the other with few fouls called. Even today, players routinely say “If it’s underwater it’s legal,” referring to kicking, holding, and wrapping up players beneath the obscured surface. Dirty play is common.
The most famous game in international history was played at the ’56 Olympics, also held in Melbourne. Hungary — reacting to the events of the Hungarian Revolution that ended with a large Soviet army crushing a small group of student demonstrators — beat the Soviets 4-0 after the game was halted with a minute left for fear of spectators joining in on the violence. This match is referred to as the Blood in the Water match, and the pool was rumored to have turned red from the violent play.
Reason number 2: Improvements in broadcast technology have made games easier to follow on TV; sometimes even easier than watching tank-side.
Back in the day, with only one or two cameras available, spectators usually got no more than a relatively wide shot from the side of the tank with little regard for the action that takes place in the water. Ball movement was captured but shots on goal weren’t very well represented.
Now, with multiple cameras, overhead shots, and impressive underwater capabilities, TV spectators actually see more than they could if they were actually there. While images don’t quite get you virtually in the tank, TV broadcasts get us better angles, more clear views of shots on goal, and ultimately a better understanding of the game being played. The sport utilizes a basketball-like offense in game play akin to hockey. It’s fast-paced and exciting, with little downtime.
Reason number 3: Unlike U.S. Soccer, the American teams are actually pretty damned good.
The women’s team won a bronze medal at the ‘04 Athens Olympics and the men’s team put in a strong showing as legitimate medal contenders despite fierce international competition. While Team U.S.A.’s soccer squad is improving, the idea that they could contend for a gold medal, much less the World Cup, is at this point in time ludicrous. U.S. Water Polo is significantly more legit.
It’s also important to note that Water Polo does happen in the Free State. The prep high schools all have teams, Hopkins has a Division III team, and Navy’s team is consistently good despite the power teams traditionally being located in California.
Reason number 4: It’s cooler than being an American soccer ponce.
Ever notice the way American hipster dudes always have a British Premier League affiliation? They support Arsenal, or Liverpool, or cliché of clichés, Chelsea. They’re annoying anglophiles in the utmost extreme, and don’t believe them when they tell you that they’ve loved Man U ever since they were kids. They started watching soccer after they read some interview with Morrissey.
Watching water polo would make you far more arcane and obscure. Plus, ear protectors are cooler than shin-guards, even if polo players do wear Speedos. Who’s at risk for losing an ear on a soccer field?
Reason number 5: It’s your only chance to see this level of competition until 2008.
The next time the sport is likely to be televised is at the Beijing Olympics. This means that matches will be on NBC at 4 AM, and only the ones featuring U.S. teams. Here’s hoping they make the championship game or you’re unlikely to even see that game.
So sure, Melbourne’s matches won’t likely be aired at a time convenient to us here in Baltimore — probably about midnight on ESPN2 — but that’s what Tivo is for. You can be in on the ground floor as a fan of one of the oldest team sports in Olympic competition and have bragging rights that your spectator sport of choice is more obscure than the next guy’s.
At least until some dude decides the next sport to watch amongst the hipster elite is curling.