From the centre of Paris, take the Line A of the Regional Express Network to the western suburb of Nanterre. From the station, walk along barren roads, past bleak residential buildings to the local swimming pool, where aquatic sporting excitement awaits.
Entering the venue, spectators are greeted by music, and the beautiful side of water polo suddenly comes into play. Colourful balls floating around and athletes diving everywhere to prepare themselves while others stretch on the side.
Racing Club de France are hosting Aix en Savoie, the undisputed leaders of the second division of water polo’s French national championship, in an eagerly awaited match-up.
After removing your shoes for sanitary reasons, you open your eyes and ears wide. It is quite easy to appreciate that the sport combines speed and strength, as well as teamwork and a high level of fitness.
Less easy, at least initially, is working out what is actually happening. “It’s really hard to understand what is going on,” complained one teenager, perhaps watching his first water polo match.
Even though many of us have watched water polo at the Olympics and think we know the game, the sport has many more hidden faces than one would think.
The match begins with a swim-off. The referee releases the ball in the middle of the pool, with each team lined up along their own goal-lines. Aix en Savoie acquired possession, which gave them a tremendous advantage.
Each team has a maximum of seven players in the water at any given time, including a goalkeeper. Substitutions can be made as many times as the teams wish, and turnovers are huge, generating constant excitement throughout the game.
Players advance on the opposing goal by throwing the ball to a team-mate or swimming while pushing it in front in them, constantly adjusting their coordination as they can only hold the ball with a single hand.
Matches are divided into four quarters of eight minutes and, as in basketball, each team has a certain amount of time to make a move or score. With very little downtime, the crowd is kept constantly engaged by the quality of play.
Combining endurance, shooting, dribbling skills, and a lot of determination, the game requires plenty of strength and has similar values to rugby.
Using their arms and legs, players are always fighting for the ball, and this makes for a lively spectacle. Both teams dared to play, and their commitment to attack made the match a pleasure to watch.
“They never stop!” said one woman, watching with her baby in her arms.
At the end of each period, players immediately swim off to the substitutes bench to rehydrate themselves and rest for the next round.
Their willingness and determination was shown by their constant back and forth in the pool during the game. It is estimated that top water polo players swim up to four miles during a match, a truly considerable effort.
Respect, unity, partnership and enjoyment: water polo gives you a real insight of the true values of sport.
When two players began trash talking each other during a jump ball, their captains ended the debate by separating them.
Despite the tensions of competition, players were always keen to fetch the ball from the other side of the pool in order to ensure the smooth running of the match.
When the referee blew the final whistle, the comparison between rugby and water polo continued as the Aix en Savoie players, who won the match quite easily (12-6), formed a guard of honour for their opponents.
Although Nanterre’s swimming pool only has around 350 seats, the atmosphere constituted a crucial factor on the night.
The match brought together a huge range of people. From children and teenagers to older fans, everyone possessed a positive and supportive attitude, resulting in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.
At half time, most of the fans went into the club bar area, leaving their personal belongings in the stands without worrying about theft.
When the game was over, players found time to greet and salute their fans. It was a tremendous feeling for some. “I touched the hand of a player!’ exclaimed a youngster to his dad, with a big smile on his face.
Speaking to a few fans, everybody was very approachable and keen to explain their passion. In addition, members of staff were all very friendly and welcoming, which added another positive note to the night.
Although water polo only attracts significant interest and media coverage during the Olympics, why not give it a go as a spectator sport?
With few breaks in the action, there is plenty of fun and excitement – just remember to put your shoes back on before you leave…