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February 2014









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The FINA Rules for the Next Quadrennial – Change is always… change

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet

:On August 27, 2013, FINA released the revised water polo rules for the next quadrennial, effective immediately. In keeping with tradition, these rules were adopted at the FINA executive meeting which took place during the 2013 FINA World Championships in Barcelona. Aside from some cosmetic changes and clarifications, there are a number of changes that are likely to have a significant impact on the game. Let us now look at each of these in detail. For the complete set of rules please follow this link:

FINA Rules 2013 - 2017

The first rule to undergo major revisions is WP7.3. Perhaps it is salutary this is so, because although the Advantage Principle has been the cornerstone of water polo rules for some six decades, during most of this time a single, uniform and unambiguous definition has been lacking. Not surprisingly, this opened the door to varied and conflicting interpretations, and often made WP7.3 a convenient justification for bad calls. Furthermore, due to difficulties in translation the meaning of WP7.3 in different languages was completely different [see “WP7.3 – Was Something Lost in Translation” Part I and Part II WPP, April/May 2013], and changed significantly over time.

The new wording of WP7.3 is:

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 favour 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.]

In the present attempt at a clear and explicit meaning, FINA has selected wording that empowers the referee to apply the rules in a discretionary manner, as opposed to command the referee to a prescribed course of action. Similar wording had existed in the past, but the empowerment aspect vanished from the English version in the late 1970’s, and the discretionary aspect sometime in the late 1980’s. Incidentally, this new wording is very similar to the Italian language version of the rule which, in this author’s opinion, is closer to the true spirit of the Advantage Principle.

One important aspect of the revised rule is the clear statement that referees have to officiate to the advantage of the attacking team. While the previous version and most interpretations of WP7.3 implied that, the present wording leaves no room for doubt.

The next rule to undergo major revisions is WP19.2:

WP 19.2 A player awarded a free throw shall put the ball into play immediately, including by passing or by shooting, if permitted by the Rules. It shall be an offence if a player who is clearly in a position most readily to take a free throw does not do so. A defending player having committed a foul shall move away from the player taking the free throw before raising an arm to block a pass or shot; a player who fails to do so shall be excluded for “interference” under WP 21.5.

The first sentence removes the discretionary aspect of what constitutes a reasonable amount of time for the taking of a free throw. While this will improve the flow of the game, it is the added third sentence that is really important since it again requires the defender to make room for the free throw as was the case in the past, and is still the case under NCAA rules. Forcing the defender to make room improves the attacker’s options for putting the ball into play, and is more in line with other mainstream sports.

The next rule is a waste of time. Actually, the “new” WP20.16 To waste time is nothing but a repeat of the same rule from the past, and most referees will say it is all but unenforceable, but the new wording comes with a small yet perhaps significant difference:

WP 20.16 To waste time.

[Note. It is always permissible for a referee to award an ordinary foul under this Rule before the 30 seconds possession period has elapsed.

If the goalkeeper is the only player of the team in that team’s half of the field of play, it shall be deemed wasting time for the goalkeeper to receive the ball from another member of that team who is in the other half of the field of play.

In the last minute of the game, the referees must be certain that there is intentional wasting time before applying this Rule.]

The second sentence is interesting. A team can no longer pass the ball back to their goalie from the front court when challenged; instead, they must move the ball around in the opponent’s half. This could have significant and spectacular consequences late in a game where the team in possession is leading by one goal with 15 – 20 seconds left on the game clock.

WP20.17 is a rule that some would say is long overdue:

WP 20.17 To simulate being fouled.
[Note. Simulation means an action taken by a player with the apparent intent of causing a referee to award a foul incorrectly against an opposing player. A referee may issue a yellow card against a team for repeated simulation and may apply WP 21.13 (persistent fouling) to sanction offending players.]

Oftentimes attackers in possession of the ball let go of the ball and push into the defender’s chest with their head or shoulder, in the hope of getting a quick foul. This happens more often on the perimeter. At center, the attacker reaches for the ball after a wet pass and then either stops or lunges back as if pulled back by the defender, all the while looking inquisitively at the referee. None of this does anything for the game and most people would recognize it for what it is, but until now the only recourse was a contra foul if the attacker’s head made contact with the defender’s face, impeding (WP20.9) or a no call which invariably brought an irate comment from the attacking coach. Making simulation illegal should have a positive impact on the presentation of the game.

We now arrive at a significant rule change: impeding (old WP20.9) is no longer an ordinary foul. Under the new rules, impeding (WP21.8) is an exclusion offense. Although most of the rule is unchanged, a note was added that merits some discussion:

WP 21.8 To impede or otherwise prevent the free movement of an opponent who is not holding the ball, including swimming on the opponent’s shoulders, back or legs. “Holding” is lifting, carrying or touching the ball but does not include dribbling the ball.

[Note. This Rule can also be applied to advantage the attacking team. If a counter attack is in progress and a foul is committed which limits the attack, the offending player shall be excluded… [n.a.: the rest of the rule is unchanged]

Impeding is not always or, better said, not necessarily a defensive foul, although most often it is enforced as such. If one looks closely at the figures in WP21.8 (or the old WP20.9), it is apparent that only Figure 7 depicts a foul committed by the defense, a defender swimming over the attacker’s legs. The examples in Figures 8 through 10 depict fouls of impeding committed by an attacker, which in the past should be whistled as contras but most often were not. Under the new rule, if the attacker impedes a defender as shown in Figures 8 through 10, (s)he is now to be excluded even though (s)he has possession of the ball. Although this is logical since the attacker is not advancing the ball but instead (s)he is preventing the free movement of the defender, enforcing this rule will no doubt be problematic. Related, under the current NCAA rules an illegal pick could now be whistled as an exclusion instead of a simple turn-over.

There is an issue with the wording of the note. On a counter-attack, any foul by the defense is intended to “limit” (read: stop) the attack. For example, when an attacker with the ball has inside water and is coming up on the post while another attacker outside 5m is fouled by a defender, if the referee awards an exclusion the attacker with the ball (who is now 1:1 with the goalie) cannot shoot, but must instead pass the ball back to the location of the foul (WP19.1). The foul, or rather the call, would accomplish exactly what the defender had intended, namely: to prevent a high-probability shot and allow time for the defense to set up in a zone play.

This ties in directly with WP21.11, a new rule that states:

WP 21.11 Upon a change of possession, for a defending player to commit a foul on any player of the team in possession of the ball, anywhere in the attacking team’s half of the field of play.

[Note. This Rule is to be applied if the team losing possession of the ball attempts to restrict the attack of the other team by committing a foul on any attacking player before that player has crossed the half-distance line.]

Once again, any foul by the defense during a counter-attack has only one purpose: to stop the momentum of the attack. If a defender in the back court commits a fouls and the referee whistles an exclusion in accordance with this rule, the award turns a potential shooter into a mandatory passer and returns the ball to the back court, while at the same time giving the defense time to set up for a 6-on-5.

In light of the wording of WP21.8 it seems that WP21.11 is somewhat redundant, and should be applied with great care and in full observance of WP7.3,otherwise it could have an effect directly opposite to the one (presumably) intended. Or perhaps this new rules is just a case of less could have been more.

WP 21.10, To use two hands to hold an opponent anywhere in the field of play, is perhaps the most significant change in this edition of the rules. Although WP21.9 already prohibits holding a player not in possession of the ball, WP21.10 does not specify if the player held with two hands must not be holding the ball. So if the center has the ball and the defender uses to hands to hold and prevent him/her from turning or progressing towards the goal, the defender has to be excluded. Conversely, if the center holds the defender thus preventing him/her from reaching a poorly placed wet pass, then the attacker has to be excluded. (This seems somewhat redundant with the new WP21.8.) If they’re both holding then both have to be excluded.

The same would necessarily apply on the perimeter where most of the holding occurs in the first place, whether at the point of the ball or not. Thus far most people agree this would have a positive impact by once again promoting a driving game. However, the rule omits to specify how players will demonstrate they’re not holding, but it is reasonable to assume that some show of hands will be required. People who played hole defender in the 1970’s and early 80’s will no doubt remember that.

We now arrived at the last of the new rules:

WP 22.8 For the coach, or any team official to take any action with intent to prevent a probable goal or to delay the game. No personal foul shall be recorded for this offence.

The intent of this rule is self-evident and doesn’t need much by way of comment except to say that, although it does occur, this type of violation is very rare. However, penalizing disruptive coaches without excluding them from the game could have a positive effect on the presentation of the game, and is completely in line with other mainstream sports.


Most of the rules introduced for the 2013 – 2017 quadrennial are likely to have a significant impact on the game. In particular, it appears that WP21.9, 21.10 and 21.11 are aimed at specific behaviors and style of play that have a negative impact on the flow and presentation of the game. One example would be unnecessary contact between attackers and defenders, such as back court fouls or holding away from the ball. As it is often the case in the beginning, there is bound to be some confusion and debate regarding these new rules for some time, particularly since there appears to be some redundancy between them. Also, we have to wait and learn how USAWP and the NCAA will interpret these rules. However, notwithstanding any of that, it is encouraging to see that the rule makers are making efforts in the right direction.