The global reach of water polo has spread its tentacles far from the traditional heartland of Europe. Minnow countries have chanced their arms on the world stage in the past and this year is no different with Thailand, Argentina and Colombia women being admitted to the fold at the FINA World Championships to be staged in Hungary.
A look at the medal tables of FINA World Championships reveals 10 women’s nations and 12 men’s having reached the dais.
Women’s medals have been dominated by United States of America with six of the 14 gold medals since women joined the men at this level in Madrid in 1986.
Australia won that inaugural event while Hungary and Italy have two golds apiece and the other titles going the way of Greece, Netherlands and Spain.
While these are traditional countries, always at the forefront of medal speculation, for the lesser countries it’s all about the participation and an opportunity to gauge where they are on the international ladder. A chance to tour, visit different countries and play in front of larger crowds are all important to athletes’ longevity in the sport.
The fact that they get to compete against the best teams and athletes in the world is the bonus that many players crave. Some might even be asked to further their careers with international club contracts.
The FINA World Championships is the highest level for a wide group of teams as the Olympics are almost closed events with only the cream of the crop gaining access.
With the absence of the Russian Federation and China this year, the red carpet has been rolled out to Thailand and Colombia women to attend and show their worth. Neither has played this level before and joins a group of now fewer than 28 nations who have, or will, attend this mainstream event.
Looking around the continents, Europe has the biggest representation, naturally, with Italy, Greece, Hungary, Russia, Netherlands, Spain, Germany, France with Norway, Belgium and Great Britain competing in 1986.
Asia has been busy with China, Japan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and South Korea playing 2019. Thailand joins this year.
America has fronted with the ever-successful United States of America, Canada, Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Argentina and Colombia make it eight nations this year.
Oceania has had the perennial Australia attend and New Zealand has only missed twice before and is back again this year.
Africa has South Africa as the sole representative, playing in the last six editions with this year the seventh.
What about men? Twelve nations have won the gold medal since the tournament began in 1973.
Italy tops the list with four, including the previous edition in Gwangju. Hungary has three titles, with other five nations doing the double.
The interesting scenario here is the Balkan countries. Playing as Yugoslavia it won twice — 1986 and 1991 — then after a lot of nation splitting, Serbia & Montenegro won in 2005 and Serbia claimed the 2009 and 2015 editions. Croatia won in 2007 and 2017. Montenegro has one silver medal as a sovereign nation.
In the breakdown of the nations, Europe dominates with Yugoslavia, Croatia, Serbia & Montenegro, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Spain, USSR, Russia, Federal Republic of Germany, Germany, France, Romania, Macedonia, Slovakia, Netherlands, Great Britain and Bulgaria all having the limelight. Georgia comes into the line-up this year as the only new team.
Asia is led by China, Japan and Kazakhstan with Israel, Iran, and South Korea in the mix.
The Americas has the USA, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina.
Oceania has Australia and New Zealand.
Africa has perennial South Africa along with occasional visits by Egypt.
That makes a total of 38 independent nations.
On the venue front, the FINA Technical Water Polo Committee aired the suggestion some years ago under the chairmanship of Gianni Lonzi that 24 teams go into the draw with a variety of cities utilised before the top teams transit to the major venue for the finals.
This year, four cities will be used — Budapest, Szeged, Sopron and Debrecen — allowing for a wider audience to view the best in the world. The top eight finish the tournament in Budapest and the 9-16 teams will contest their final round in Szeged.
The octopus reach of the sport is tantalising as it becomes more expansive.