By Dasch Barber
Water-polo is one of those games where, if you have not played it, it is very difficult to understand. So many rules. And So many of those rules are left up to interpretation. Which is where all the confusion lies. I am going to try and give you a basic outline and a small insight into the mind of the referee, without boring you with the countless laws and ways to interperate them.
First and foremost, the referees are there to help the flow of the game and support attacking, POSITIVE water-polo. We get no gain out of the outcome. It does not matter to us who wins or loses. The less you notice us. The better. This is the same in all sports. The problem is, that most of Water-polo’s action takes place underneath the water.
The problem with this, is that it leaves lots of room for interpretation. We are only human, and can only blow what we see. We cannot pre-empt what is going to happen. This is not fair on the players and neither on the coaches. Because essentially you are awarding the team with something that MIGHT be happening, not definitely is.
There are certain areas where there is much debate, and which causes most of the shouting and screaming on the side of the pool. I will try and explain them as best I can and hopefully they shed a bit more light.
1) The penalty (5m)
This is water-polos greatest advantage. Which is why it cannot be given willy-nilly. Recently, players are fighting for the penalty. WRONG. Players need to play for the goal and if the referee interoperates that he has been impeded to prevent a probable goal. The Penalty may also only be awarded within the 5m area(Between the yellow markers on the side of the pool and the goal line) and if the player is between the goal posts. The attacking player also needs to be completely facing the goal. This is especially the case in the centre-forward position. Where most of the screaming takes place. If the centre-forward(hole-man) has turned his opponent, but only half way, this cannot be a penalty. This can be an exclusion(Major foul, kick-out) but not a penalty. There leaves too much room for interpretation here.
2) The Centre-forward/Centre-back positions
Probably where some of the most physical aspects of the game take place. Where you here most coaches going bananas. And all we as referees are trying to do is keep the contest fair and within the spirit of the game. Now this needs a whole article by itself, but in a nutshell, no player may unfairly gain an advantage in this position. If the CF does so, it is a contra(reversal) foul, if the centre back does so, he is Excluded(kicked-out,major foul). This includes ducking under the player, sinking(putting 2 hands on the players shoulder) pulling. Now if both players are holding each other, both jostling for position, there is no need to blow if it is within the boundaries. If it goes out of those boundaries, the referees are there to keep the game under wraps and make sure it does not get out of hand. As I said, I could carry on discussing this, but this is for you to understand the game slightly better
3) The ‘Advantage’ rule
Now this is an interpretation where the referee needs to have a feel for the game and when to blow his or her whistle. It is why I state previously, that this game is not about us, but about the players and the spectacle. Players need to go for goal, and always play for that end prize. The referees will award where necessary, but the less we blow our whistles, the more the players are focused on their game and we are not even noticed.
4) The Yellow/red card scenario
Something we have come to see often, although not a great part of the game if I am to be honest. The cards are there to protect the referee and the integrity of water-polo. Sport, and rules, have always been there to be tested. And that is what coaches currently do. They are there to test your mettle as a referee, sometimes intimidate you, try and get the upper-hand in any way possible to achieve victory. I am not complaining about this. Emotions are going to run high in a game, very understandable. But the one topic you cannot do is take the law into your own hands. In what other sport, barring soccer, can you shout and scream at a referee where he can blatantly here you? Not many. This leaves plenty ‘wiggle-room’ and coaches push the boundary here. Your yellow card is a warning card. It is to tell you, ‘you have over-stepped the mark, quieten down’. The red card is given once the coaches offends again. This can be in any number of ways, but basically the coach needs to behave respectfully. No matter how tight the game is. Noone is bigger than the game. The same applies for players, however for any form of misconduct, violence or brutality in the water that has been noticed, they receive a straight red card. Once this card has been shown to either player or coach, they need to leave the pool arena.
Those are some points that I think will help you understand the base of water-polo, and how the game needs to be played and what our roles as referees are. There is always going to be confusion between the 4 parties involved, but if things are communicated and everyone has a better understanding of the game and how it is meant to be played, then everyone will be better off.
We are fortunate in South Africa to have had international exposure in terms of our referees. We have referees who have represented us all over the world at Olympic Games and World championships. We currently have 6 referees on the FINA list who are eligible to ref internationally. And guys such as Guy Pinker, Ian Meliar, Mike Brady and Alan Burt have paved the way for young referees to show that it can be done. They have all done a lot for South African Water-polo, as have countless others, for referees in South Africa to gain exposure and to put us onto the international map.
In the end, we are also human. We also make mistakes. We want the game to be played as best possible and for there to be a spectacle. We do it for the love of the game, as the players do. Like in any sport, we as referees are no ones friend during the game, and not everyone is going to agree as to how you are blowing. But consistency is all everyone asks for, and it is all we are after as well.