Catalonia world's water polo mecca after long and successful history

Catalan teams and players dominate Spanish league and are majority in national team at Olympics

A shot of the Italy-Spain water polo 2022 World Championship final on July 3, 2022
A shot of the Italy-Spain water polo 2022 World Championship final on July 3, 2022 / DBM/Deepbluemedia for Royal Spanish Swimming Federation
Gerard Escaich Folch

Gerard Escaich Folch | @gescaichfolch | Barcelona

June 18, 2023 11:09 AM

June 18, 2023 11:36 AM

It was a summery Sunday on July 12, 1908, when Spain saw its first-ever water polo match being played at Barcelona's Platja d'Entrenament beach. Since then, Catalonia has had a long and successful water polo history, with a new chapter written after the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.

Games of a similar water sport were played in Great Britain as early as 1850, but, at that moment, it was called 'Football-in-the-water.' 

It is one of the oldest team sports at the Olympics, as the first game took place in the 1900 Paris Games, with Great Britain dominating the first couple of decades before being overtaken by Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and Eastern European countries.

Spain had to wait until 1992 to leave its mark on the aquatic sport's history.

First water polo game ever in Catalonia, in 1908
First water polo game ever in Catalonia, in 1908 / Josep Brangulí / Wikimedia commons

In water polo, there are seven players per team: six outfields and one goalkeeper, who play for four parts of eight minutes each, but the clock stops every time the ball is not in motion, increasing the game time to around 12 minutes on average.

Players cannot touch the swimming pool's floor and are treading water using the eggbeater kick. One of the other main rules is that athletes can only hold the ball with one hand to allow the opponent to get a chance to win this yellow with black lines ball.

1992 Olympic Games

Barcelona Olympic Games was a turning point for Spain's national male water polo team. The group coached by Croatian Dragan Matutinović reached the competition's final despite not being the favorites to achieve such success.

Most of the matches took place at the now-public swimming pools in Montjuïc hill, where water polo is still practiced.

"It was one of the best games in history, and I think everyone here in Barcelona, actually in Spain, maybe in the world, remember this great game, this great final against Italy," Felipe Perrone, water polo player at Club Natació Atlètic-Barceloneta and captain of the Spanish team, told Catalan News by the swimming pool with astonishing views to the Catalan capital.

Water polo player Felipe Perrone
Water polo player Felipe Perrone / Catalan News

"Unfortunately, Spain lost in the extra time, but it was an amazing game," Perrone added, speaking from what players of this water sport named the 'Magic Mountain.'

During that game, the country saw Catalan water polo players and the seven-time 'Best Water Polo Player in the World', Manel Estiarte, compete for the gold medal. 

After three extra times, Spain lost the match as Italy scored the winning goal in the last 42 seconds of the game, which gave name to the movie released during the 30th anniversary of the feat explaining the history behind the game.

In 1992, Spain won the silver medal, but four years later, at the 1996 Atlanta Games, the team took the gold home.

However, 1992 was not the first time the team competed at an international level, in fact, it had been part of the games since 1920.

"The Olympic Games is the most beautiful moment in the sport. It's a time when small sports like water polo get big, so we share moments with the most important athletes in the world. It's a really special moment," Perrone said to Catalan News.

Catalonia has become the world's water polo mecca in the past few decades. It has not been considered mainstream sport but enjoys a long and successful history, peaking at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. / Gerard Escaich Folch

He has been "lucky enough to be in the last four Olympic Games," and he hopes to be in Paris next year as "if we get there, we are going to go for the gold," he added after playing for Spain in Beijing, London, and Tokyo, and for Brazil at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games – Perrone he has the double nationality.

The team believes that after the defeat in the semifinals in Tokyo "in a historic game against Serbia" and after winning last year's World Championships in Paris, the group will be able to win, Perrone told this media outlet.

World's greatest

Catalan water polo players are among the greatest in the world, as the majority of the Spanish national teams, both male and female, are dominated by residents in Catalonia. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, six Catalans were part of the male team, while an incredible 12 out of 13 were in the women's.

In fact, the women's team won the silver medal after losing to the United States of America team—a repetition of the 2012 London Games final.

While men's teams have been competing since the beginning of the 20th century, women have only been participating in the games since Sydney's 2000 with exhibition matches and at a competitive level from the 2004 Athens. 

Women only began partaking in international tournaments in 1978, over a century after the sport was invented.

Away from the Olympics

Spain, and therefore Catalonia, do not only succeed at Olympic Games but also in other competitions.

Recently, the men's team won the gold medal at the 2022 World Aquatics Championships, while in the same year, the female team took the European Water Polo Championship gold accolade.

"The most important thing is actually that the Spanish water polo is totally the Catalan water polo, to be true," Felipe Perrone said. 

"In the old times, there were teams in Madrid and other places that gave many players to the national team, but now to be a high-level water polo player, you need to be in Barcelona and Catalonia," he added.

LEN Europa Cup, Women's Super Final 2018
LEN Europa Cup, Women's Super Final 2018 / Harpagornis / Wikimedia commons

Indeed, he has won 15 Spanish league titles with two Barcelona-based clubs and three LEN Champions League trophies with three different teams from three different countries: Croatia's Jug Dubrovnik in the 2015-16 season, Italy's Pro Recco (2011-12), and Barcelona's CN Atlètic-Barceloneta (2013-2014).

Perrone has also been named the "World Player of the Year" in 2018 and the Olympic Games 2008 and 2012 Team of the Tournament.

Barcelona: a water polo mecca

Water polo is a great tradition in Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary, among other countries, but in Catalonia, "no one is paying attention to it," Felipe Perrone told Catalan News, even though the water polo is among the most successful water sports in the territory with 2,950 men and 1,200 women practicing.

Globally, Barcelona is considered one of the world's meccas for water polo.

"We have a lot of swimming pools," the player said before adding that the management and "how the city views the sport and organizes it" are also crucial.

Pools in Barcelona are under clubs concessions which "invest in water polo" and "their goal is not just to make the business model work, but also investing in the sport," as opposed to what is seen in other countries where pools and gyms just look for "the benefits for private companies."

For him, not being a mainstream sport is not bad, as "in Barcelona, we have a lot of sports, so we need to compete with many other sports for the crowd's attention."

Interest in recent years has been growing, and Perrone even encourages those doubting to try it.

"I don't like to go against swimming, but swimming is just swimming, and water polo is playing in the water, so who loves to play, take water polo."