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Water Polo History
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Tuesday, 08 May 2007

History and development of Game

by Yiannis Giannouris water polo coach from Greece

Historical Synopsis of the Game in England

The founder of the game of football in the water, now knows as water polo, was William Wilson, born in London of Scottish parents in 1844.Although Wilson was the Inventor of water polo, there are no records to show that he took definite steps to develop the game.


In England about the year 1870 interest in swimming exhibitions was on the decline, and with the idea developing the spectacular side of swimming, London Swimming Club on May 12.1870, formed a committee to draw up a set of rules for a football game in the water. It took several years for the play to take definite form.

The teams consisted of seven on side: standing on bottom when playing the ball was forbidden: ducking an opponent, whether in possession of ball or not and swimming under water with the ball where permissible. The goalkeeper stood on the goal and kept watch, usually jumping on players in possession of the ball if he comes hear the goal.

Year by year minor improvements and alterations were made in the game, and in 1884 progress toward official recognition by the National Swimming Association of England was made. Water Polo players are indebted to the late W. Henry of the Royal Life its recognition by the Association in 1885.

In Scotland about 1887 goals posts were used trough which the ball could be thrown. The goalkeeper still defended either in or out of the water and jumped in when necessary if he chose to play on the edge of pool at the end of the field of play. The use of goal posts signified a fundamental change in the game. The ball could now be thrown through the goal in addition to placing it there by hand. This resulted in a change in character of play. It no longer was a case of brute strength but instead one of speed, technique, and tactic.

Very little alteration took place in the rules until 1888, when a committee consisting of four members, A Sinclair (founder or the London Water Polo League), W. Henry, T. Young, and H. G. Hackett, was appointed to revise the rules and submit a report to the League. This report, when submitted, was unanimously approved, and these rules, which are similar to those used today, formed the basis upon which the present game is played. They were universally adopted.


However, ferneries abroad did not always interpret the rules in the same way as in England. This caused a good deal of unpleasantness and confusion. As a result a new International Water Polo Board was formed in 1929, consisting of four representatives from Great Britain, and four from the International Amateur Swimming Federation (F.I.N.A.). All International and other matches are now played under the new rules as amended by that body. These rules were put into effect on January 1. 1930. Minor corrections and Interpretations have been made since this time at board’s regular meetings. 

History of water polo

The history of water polo as a team sport began as a demonstration of strength and swimming skill in late 19th century England and Scotland, where water sports and racing exhibitions were a feature of county fairs and festivals. Men's water polo was the among the first team sports introduced at the modern Olympic games in 1900. Water polo is now popular in many countries around the world, notably Europe (particularly in Hungary, Greece, Italy, Russia and the former Yugoslavia), the United States, Canada and Australia. The present-day game involves teams of seven players (plus up to six substitutes), with a water polo ball similar in size to a soccer ball but constructed of waterproof nylon.

Development of the game

The rules of water polo were originally developed in the late nineteenth century in Great Britain by William Wilson. The modern game originated as a form of rugby football played in rivers and lakes in England and Scotland with a ball constructed of Indian rubber. This "water rugby" came to be called "water polo" based on the English pronunciation of the Balti word for ball, pulu. Early play allowed brute strength, wrestling and holding opposing players underwater to recover the ball; the goalie stood outside the playing area and defended the goal by jumping in on any opponent attempting to score by placing the ball on the deck.
By the 1880's, the game evolved to include fast-paced team play with a soccer-sized ball that emphasized swimming, passing, and scoring by shooting into a goal net; players could only be tackled when holding the ball and could not be taken under water. To deal with variations in regional rules, in 1888, the London Water Polo League was founded and approved a set of rules to allow team competition, forming the basis of the present game. The first English championships were played in 1888. In 1890, the first international water polo game was played; Scotland defeated England, 4-0.

Water polo final at the 1908 Summer Olympics

Water polo final at the 1908 Summer Olympics Between 1890 and 1900, the game developed in Europe, with teams competing in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Hungary and Italy, using British rules. A different game was being played in the United States, characterized by rough play, holding, diving underwater, and soft, semi-inflated ball that could be gripped tightly and carried underwater. As a result, European teams did not compete in the 1904 Olympic championships in St. Louis. By 1914, most US teams agreed to conform to international rules. An international water polo committee was formed in 1929, consisting of representatives from Great Britain and the International Amateur Swimming Federation (FINA). Rules were developed for international matches and put into effect in 1930; FINA has been the international governing body for the sport since that time.
Over the years, both technical and rule changes affected the character of the game. In 1928, Hungarian water polo coach Bela Komjadi invented the "air pass," or "dry pass", a technique in which a player directly passes the ball through the air to another player, who receives it without the ball hitting the water. Previously, players would let the ball drop in the water first and then reach out for it, but the dry pass made the offensive game more dynamic, and contributed to Hungarian dominance of water polo for 60 years. In 1936, James R. ("Jimmy") Smith, California water polo coach and author of several books on water polo mechanics, developed a water polo ball made with an inflatable bladder and a rubber fabric cover, which improved performance. The previous leather ball absorbed water and became heavier during the game. In 1949, rule changes allowed play to continue uninterrupted after a referee whistled an ordinary foul, speeding up play. In the 1970's, the exclusion foul replaced a point system for major fouls; players guilty of this foul were excluded for a 1 minute penalty and their team forced to play with fewer players. Possession of the ball was limited to 45 seconds before a scoring attempt. Time of penalties and possession have been reduced since then. The direct shot on goal from the seven (7) meter line after a free throw was allowed in 1994, and changed to a five meter throw in 2005.


International play

Every 2 to 4 years since 1973, a men's Water Polo World Championship is played together with the World Swimming Championship, under the auspices of FINA. Women's water polo was added in 1986. A second tournament series, the FINA Water Polo World Cup, has been held every other year since 1979. In 2002, FINA organized the sport's first international league, the FINA Water Polo World League, in which the best national teams compete against one another in an annual season format with nearly half a million dollar purse. Internationally, the biggest water polo competition in the world is played in the Netherlands. Prince William of England was the captain of his collegiate water polo team at St Andrew's University, Scotland. The annual Varsity Match between Oxford and Cambridge Universities is the sport's longest running rivalry, first played in 1891.

William Wilson (born November 13, 1844 in London, England) was a late 19th Century Scottish journalist, swimming instructor and coach, and contributor to the scientific techniques behind competitive swimming. In 1883, Wilson published "The Swimming Instructor," one of the first books on swimming to define modern concepts of stroke efficiency, training, racing turns and water safety. William Wilson, Scottish aquatics pioneer and originator of the first rules of water polo.

The Chronological Evolution of Water Polo Rules


1st PERIOD ( 1869 - 1905)

1869 - Birth of water polo in England.The rules are different from Region to Region.A goal was scored by a player carrying the ball with two hands into a boat.One ore two goalkeepers standing on the boat were jumping on the opponent in order to protect scoring against.


Duration of the game was twenty ( 20 ) minutes.

Ball may be passed or carried from a player to

another either on or below the surface of the goal.

No players was allowed to interfere an opponent not

holding the ball.

Otherwise a free throw is awarded to the opponent at

the place that the foul occurred.

1876 - The Scot WILLIAM WILSON elaborate a set of rules.

1879 - There were introduced goal post similar to those of football.
The dimensions of the field of play were not yet uniform.
The number of players was approximately nine ( 9 ).

1883 - The duration of the game becomes twenty (20) minutes.

1884 - The number of players was reduced to eight ( 8 ).

Wearing caps of deferent colour became obligatory. The size of the goal post had to be 10 feet ( 305cm). The ball could be taken underwater.

The English Amateur Swimming Association accepts "WATER FOOTBALL" as an official game.

1886 - The number of players was reduced to seven ( 7 ). The size of the goal post became seven feet (2.13 m) wide and six feet ( 1.83 m) high. A goal could be attained not only by placing the ball into the cage but also by throwing the ball into into the players should touch the ball with ONE HAND during the game.

1888 - The dimension of the goal post were fixed at ten feet (3.05m) wide and 3 feet (91cm) high, at the deep side of the pool, while at the shallow side of the pool the goal post should be five feet (1.52cm) high.

The length of the field should be no more than thirty yards ( 27 m) and no less than twenty yards ( 18 m). It became prohibited for the players to stand at the bottom of the pool.

The first ENGLISH Championships was organized.


Water polo was introduced in America.


1890 - Took place the first International water polo game.SCOTLAND Vs. ENGLAND 4-0.

1893 - Germany was the first European country on the Continent to know the game.

1894 - Austria followed up.

1895 - France and Belgium are joining the water polo playing Nations.

1897 - Water polo appeared in Hungary.

1900 - The Italians join the Ratko. First appearance of water polo at the Olympics of Paris. ( England -Belgium - France ).

The rules by 1900 were consisting of twenty three ( 23 ) paragraphs and a number of sub paragraphs.

Among them there were:­

The length of the field should be between 30 and 19 yards and the  width of the field not more than -20 yards and even throughout the field of play.The dept of the pool should be at list 3 feet ( 90 cm ).

The duration of the games was 2 periods of seven ( 7 ) minutes, with three (3) minutes of interval.When a goal has been scored, the time until the restarting of the game or the time occupied by disputes or fouls was not reckoned as  time of playing.Were determined eleventh (11) ordinary fouls. Was introduced the concept of wifely fouls when according to the opinion of the referee a player committed an ordinary foul willfully. Such a player should be excluded until a goal was scored.Within the four (4) yards area a willful foul caused exclusion of the player till scoring of a goal and four (4) yard penalty throw against his team. For ordinary fouls a free throw was awarded at the place that the foul occurred. A goal could not be scored from a free throw. During any foul assigned by the referee the players had to remain at their respective positions. Any player within the four (4) yards line could intercept apenalty throw and Goalkeeper should remain within the four (4) yards area of his own goal post and could throw the ball beyond, the middle of the field.

1904- At the Olympic games of Saint Luis, the European teams did not participate since the Americans wanted to apply their own rules.


2nd PERIOD ( 1905 - 1928)


1905 - International splashing and hitting the ball with clenched fist were considered as willful fouls.

1908 - FINA is established and adopts the set of rules that were existing by 1900 with minor alterations. The ball had to be made of leather with the inside made from rubber.

1918 - The player nearest the occurrence of a foul should execute the free throw.

1919 - It was described the manner in which a free throw should be excluded.

1926 - LEN is being established.

1928 - The system of measuring the dimensions of the field of play by yards was resumed. A free throw awarded to the goalie could be executed by any player closest to him. Disobedience was considered a foul. The depth of the pool had to be at list 1,40 meters.


3rd PERIOD ( 1929 - 1949)


1929 - International Water Polo Board ( IWPB ) is appointed by FINA in order to elaborate new rules.

1932 - Fouls were subdivided into well defined categories under the headings of ORDINARY FOULS, MAJOR FOULS AND PENAL TIES. Dimension of the field were set on thirty (30) meters of length to twenty (20) meters wide.The ball shouldweight between 400 and 450 grams.Until that time the ball use to be lighter 360 to 420 gr.

1936 - JAMES R. SMITH proposed the substitution of the leather ball with synthetic rubber ball In America the new ball is quickly accepted, while in Europe appears after 1956.

1938 - Splashing inside the four (4) m. area became a major foul resulting to an exclusion from the game and a penalty throw.

1942 - Throwing directly at goal from a free throw for major fouls outside the four (4) meters area was allowed.

1949 - The International Water Polo Board after the Olympic games of London proposed the testing of the South American rules that were giving the possibility to the players to move after the whistling of the referee.The effect was immediate, changing drastically the character of the game.The possibility to throw directly from a free throw for major fouls outside  the four (4) meters area was abolished.


4th PERIOD (1950 - 1960)


1950 - That is the end of the STANDING ERA of the game.

Test year for a new set of rules like:­

The rule that prohibited the moving of the players after the blowing of the referee whistle was cancelled officially.

The duration of the game became 2 periods of 10 minutes instead of 7 minutes

A goal could be scored if the ball has been played by at list 2 players.

The goalkeeper was restricted to execute a free throw awarded to himself, not being able to let the closet player to do it for himself.

1952 - Every decision of the referee becomes definitive.

1956 - Was introduced the restarting at half field after a goal.

Committing any foul within the 4 meter area, except a foul on a play fromwhich a goal could probably be resulted, was considered as a major foul.Players committing a 4 m. penalty were not excluded of the game.The exact definition of the Underlay. was established.


5th PERIOD ( 1961 - 1968)


1961 - Duration of the game became four (4) periods of 5 (FIVE) minutes each.The teams should be composed by seven (7) players and four (4) substitutes that could enter the game at determinate moments.

1964 - In that year in Toldo FINA instructed to the IWPB to pick up out of the   best suggestions of those presented by the member countries.

1967 - With the idea to keep during the game equal number of players on both sides is introduced the penalty point system. According to that rule every major foul caused a penalty point. At the third penalty point accumulate by any team penalty throw was awarded again st.


6thPERIOD ( 1969 - 1980)

1969 - Trial year for new changes of the rules around the world. To promote understanding of the rules FINA creates illustrations for the most frequently occurring fouls.

1970 - Instead of the penalty point system is introduced the three personal major fouls (Exclusions) was excluded definitely from the game and only one (1) minute after another player could take his place.


Every foul committed on dead time was considered as a major foul.

Possession of the ball for the attack was restricted to 45 seconds. Replacements were possible after scoring af a probable goal caused a four (4) m. penalty throw.

An excluded player should re-enter within 2 m. from the corner of the field of play on the side of goal judges.

Behind the line of the ball there was no offside not even into

2 meters area.

1977 - Possession of the ball is reduced to 35 seconds.

Exclusion time is reduced to 45 seconds.

The two (2) referees system was introduced.

Goalkeepers can throw the ball up to the opponent's four (4) m. line

Any player can take the free throw given to his team, but without any delay and from the place that the free throw has been awarded.

The assigned free throw due to an exclusion fault, could

be executed as soon as the excluder player started to leave the playing field.

( Until that time the game had to stop waiting the excluded player to leave the field of play).

Regarding fouls committed in dead time was specified that if such a foul has been committed by an attacker, a free throw should be awarded to the opponent and a personal fault ( to be recorded) against the player committing the offensive foul.

Regarding such a foul committed by a defender, an exclusion 45 sec. should be awarded ( or until a goal has been scored).

When the ball was out of the field of play are serve ball should immediately thrown in.

Cups with ear protector were introduced.


7th PERIOD ( 1981 - 1992)


1981- A unified code of signals for the referees has been introduced. The number of players has been raised to 13 (6 substitutes). Duration of the game becomes 4 periods of seven (7) minutes. Goalkeepers can throw off the ball at any point within the 2 m. area and not only from the goal line between the goal post.

At the beginning of the game the clock starts at the moment that one of the 2 players swimming for the ball, is touching the ball.

Putting the ball underwater in order to prevent a goal cause

a four (4) m. penalty.

1984 - FINA Congress at LOS ANGELES.

The TWPC presented two revolutionary rules:

To reduce the exclusion effect by the immediate substitution of the excluded player from a substitute player at the corner of the field.

The target of that proposition was to decrease the importer nee of the man up situation and urge the players to act more rapidly. To prohibit to a player having his back toward the opponent goal post nd already have received a free throw to remain at his place.

Both proposals were not accepted.

1986 - FINA Technical Congress in MADRID

The following changes were approved.

The exclusion time reduced to 35 sec. and the excluded player can re-entry on the signal of the referee if his team recover

the ball.

Committing ordinary fouls in a raw is not any more a major foul. Committing an offensive foul should not be any more considered as personal fault.

1991 - FINA Congress at PERTH during the World Championships. The following changes were approved:­

The exclusion time is reduced to 20 sec. and the excluded player can re-enter on the signal of the referee if his team recover the ball.

The goalkeeper can score.

At the end of 35 sec. of possession or at the end of a period of playing if the ball is on the way to the goalpost and enters, the goal is valid.

1992 - FINA on December 1992 decides the organization of the 1st World Water Polo Seminar.


8th PERIOD ( 1993 - 1997)


1993 - Rome hosts the Arts Water Polo Seminar (Oct. 1993)

1994 - FINA T.W.P.C (Technical Water Polo Committee) in RIO de Janeiro (February 1994)

Wished to:­

Create a balance between the countries by allowing more pools to meet the requirements for Water Polo:

Make the game more spectacular and better product for T. V. Speed up the game and increase the number of counterattacks. Create more action in front of the goal.

and proposed:

The experimentation of eight (8) revolutionary rules like:­

1- Reduction of the size of the field to 25 x 16 meters.).         
2- Reduction of the number of players on six instead seven

3- The use of smaller ball.

4- Immediate re-entry of the excluded player.

5- Substitution of a player could be done at any time

6- Immediate shot out of seven (7) meters after a free throw.

7 - Refereeing should be do ne without flags.

8- Coaches of teams in possession of the ball may request 2 time outs of one (1) Minute per game.

1994 - At the FINA Tecnical Congress in ROME August 94 It was decided to experiment the new rules during the Junior World Championships at Dunkirk 1995.


1996 - FINA extraordinary Congress at Berlin during the Pre Olympic Water Polo tournament (Feb. 1996)

The Congress rejected the first 4 basic revolutionary rules and were approved the second 4 ( 5-8) to be enforced after the Olympic Games in Atlanta..