Water Polo

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The Independent Online

This sport bears little resemblance to the land-bound version of polo, involving neither mallets nor ponies. In many respects, "water rugby" would have been an apter name. Water polo began as an aquatic hybrid of rugby and football, played in English rivers and lakes during the latter part of the 19th century, and until as late as the Second World War was still being played with a leather soccer ball.

This sport bears little resemblance to the land-bound version of polo, involving neither mallets nor ponies. In many respects, "water rugby" would have been an apter name. Water polo began as an aquatic hybrid of rugby and football, played in English rivers and lakes during the latter part of the 19th century, and until as late as the Second World War was still being played with a leather soccer ball.

Today, it is an established Olympic sport in its own right. Teams consist of 13 players, with seven, including a goalkeeper, competing at any one time. A match is played on a 20m x 30m pitch, and is split into seven-minute quarters, with the objective being to score as many times as possible in the opposing team's floating goal.

Games involve full, often heavy, body contact and begin with a "swim-off". The players assemble at their respective ends of the roped-off pitch and on a signal sprint towards the ball at the centre of the pool. The ball can be passed, punted and dribbled, but only a goalkeeper may catch it with both hands.

In ideal conditions, the sport is played in deep water, but at lower levels it is played in standard swimming pools, with teams alternately taking the deep and shallow ends. The latter is, surprisingly, not an advantage, as players are not allowed to touch the bottom or sides of the pool and must tread water for the duration of the game. Substitutes can be used throughout, but must remain in "exclusion boxes" behind the goal lines until one of their team-mates leaves the field of play.

The sport is dominated by an élite group of European teams which include Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy and Spain, but the British game currently boasts a number of promising young players. The 30 teams in the English national league are split into three divisions, with the six best competing against two teams from Scotland in the British Championships.

Next year's British Water Polo Championships take place in Ponds Forge, Sheffield: preliminaries on 26-27 January,finals on 9-10 February.

For information on clubs and how to start, contact the National Water Polo League ( www.nwpl.co.uk), or Amateur Swimming Association (0161 274 1204, www.britishswimming.org, email: piers.martin@swimming.org). For international news, visit www.waterpoloworld.com.

For equipment, or to order a catalogue, contact Swimshop (01582 562 111) or Speedo (0115 910 5267).

Players wear tight, coloured cloth caps tied under the chin. Each cap is numbered, with one team wearing blue and the other white. Goalkeepers always wear red caps bearing No 1. The most crucial features are the plastic earguards, which include holes to allow the water to escape. An additional foam "bumper" protects the forehead. A set of 13 caps will cost between £95 and £186, with single caps available for around £8.

Made from a lightweight, shiny PU-coated "anti-grab" fabric. Men often favour short-style trunks with a detachable box inside. There are strict rules about indecency, so many players wear two pairs. Women's costumes are made from a similar material and reach to the base of the neck. They are zipped up from the back, with extra Velcro protection to avoid unfastening by the opposition during a match. Men's costumes start from around £10, women's from £35.

The goal is a very specialised item, and should be made to order depending on the specifications of the individual pitch. Fixed and floating goals, normally aluminium, are both available, but are often sold in odd pairs; the goalkeeper treading water at the shallow end has a reach advantage, so the shallow-end frame sits slightly higher out of the water than that of the deep end to compensate. Sets are expensive, somewhere between £600 and £700. Balls are the same size as footballs, and are always dark yellow. Prices range from £12 to £25.

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