Argentina dominates world polo. Only one player in the top ten world rankings, David Stirling, isn’t Argentine and with a name like that, as you can probably guess, Stirling is from… Uruguay. (Pablo Pieres is listed as from the United States in the rankings but he’s cousins with the three Argentine Pieres brothers who are also in the top 10).
But the sport is often scoffed at, both on home Argentine soil and abroad, for being excessively cheto (I mean, there are horses involved) and costly. Is that reason enough to snub it?
La gran tragedia de La Dolfina es que logre tantas hazañas impresionantes en un deporte al cual a todos les chupa un huevo
— Daniel Tunnard (@Danieltunnard) November 1, 2015
This more or less translates to, “The great tragedy of La Dolfina is that they achieve so many impressive feats in a sport nobody gives a shit about.”
La Dolfina is one of the greatest teams in Polo history. I’ll get more into it later.
Wanting to see what all the fuss was about, a friend and I decided to take a stroll along Avenida del Libertador to the stadium to get a glimpse of the 122nd Palermo Open, which started last week in Palermo and is commonly renowned as the best polo tournament in the world.
Please let me clarify that I’m no polo expert, but here’s a brief explanation of the game to start out with. Teams of four players on horseback use a mallet to try and hit a ball a similar size to a field hockey ball between the opposition goalposts, no matter how high in the air. The game is divided into eight chukkers of seven minutes each with pauses between each chukker and a longer pause after the fourth chukker at halftime. Polo players have a plethora of horses and change mounts frequently so they remain fresh. A polo pitch is absolutely massive, too, with pitches being up to 274 meters long and 146 meters wide.
Players are given a handicap based on a rating on a player’s horsemanship, team play, knowledge of the game, strategy and horses. A handicap is an indicator of the player’s worth, on a scale from from -2 (novices) to 10 (polo Gods). Approximately two-thirds of polo players have a handicap between -2 and 2. At the Word Polo Championships the maximum total handicap a team is allowed to have is 14, making polo one of if not the only sports in the world where its best players can’t play in the top international event. This measure is certainly understandable to prevent Argentina from monopolizing the trophy, yet all the same, Argentina has won more titles (four) than any other nation in the 10 editions of the competition. And in case you were in any doubt as to why the restriction is in place, only seven players in the world have the highest possible handicap of 10 goals: six Argentines and Stirling.
To put the World Polo Championship handicap restrictions into context, the lowest handicap among the eight teams on show over the next few weeks is 31. La Dolfina, our team from the above tweet, has a handicap of 40 and Ellerstina has a handicap of 39.
What’s so special about La Dolfina? After winning the Tortugas Open and the Hurlingham Open in the past few months, La Dolfina is on course to complete the Triple Crown, winning the three most prestigious global polo tournaments in the same year which all take place here in Argentina. If La Dolfina wins the Palermo Open, it will have won the Triple Crown for the third year in a row. Upon completing successive Triple Crowns last year, La Dolfina became the first team since Coronel Suárez in 1975, 40 years ago, to win the Triple Crown back-to-back.
Back to my polo outing.
We were a little late after queuing a little while for a ticket, opting for the cheapest available at AR$220. (The AR$130 tickets had sold out, but if you’re feeling exuberant, you can pay as much as AR$980.) Anyway, we ambled down to Pitch 2 after missing the first couple of chukkers but La Dolfina was comfortably winning, reaching halftime with a comfortable 10-4 lead.
In the first chukker of the second half, La Dolfina really turned on the style, scoring four unanswered goals to extend its lead from 10-4 to 14-4 and brutally demonstrating the gulf in class between the two teams, before easing off again and eventually winning 18-7. For those seven minutes, La Dolfina was exceptional. Even to the untrained eye the skill on display was impressive. It was hard to not feel some sympathy towards their well-beaten opponents Magual, who would have been the team administering the thrashing in a tournament in almost any other country in the world. During the match, La Dolfina’s Adolfo Cambiasso scored his 800th goal in the Palermo Open with a penalty in the second chukker.
If anything though, the second game was even more enjoyable. On Pitch 1, we actually had seats, not that we had high expectations about their location. As it turned out, we had fantastic seats, centrally and fairly high up, fairly close to the TV cameras. They were also relatively comfortable compared to some of the seats I’ve been perched on in Argentine football stadiums.
The match itself was also thrilling. La Aguada (with a total handicap of 34) made a flying start against Alegría (handicap of 35), scoring two goals in the opening minute and racing into a 7-0 lead. Alegría, comfortable winners of outfit of the day in their pink attire, were not to be deterred, however, fighting back to level things up at 14-14. The end of the sixth chukker was decisive though, as Alegría missed a penalty before La Aguada went up the other end to regain the lead with just a few seconds to go, before dominating the final two chukkers as they had the opening two, eventually winning 22-17.
The whole experience was fantastic and remarkably relaxed and stress-free, in stark contrast to attending football matches here. There were no stringent security checks or even restrictions on bringing in our own water bottles. There were food trucks and ice cream stands, while there were also bars and people preparing cocktails for the crowd’s enjoyment.
All of this brings me back to the tweet though and makes me wonder why people don’t give a shit about polo. Despite Argentina being the most polo-obsessed country (hardly an achievement, mind) and having 3,000 active polo players — more than any other country — polo still takes a back seat. For example, sports daily Olé has 10 individual sections across the top of its website. The first five are all football related (yes Messi has his own section) and the next five are all dedicated to NBA, other basketball, tennis, motorsports and rugby. There are two more sections which offer more sports but even then you’d do well to find a wide range of polo news.
Polo may well have a rather elitist image since it’s not exactly the cheapest of sports to get involved in. (You need access to several horses, for starters.) There’s also a culture of dressing up relatively smartly among supporters, too. In fact, over the next few weekends, if you ever find yourself along Libertador, you’ll be able to spot those people off to the polo in their freshly-ironed shirts and neatly pressed trousers.
The complexity of the rules may also act as a deterrent for many people, but I have to say that I didn’t find it an issue. The most important thing to know is that teams change sides after every goal. My friend and I were blissfully unaware most of the time why penalties were awarded and why they were taken from different distances, but it didn’t detract for one moment from our enjoyment of what is an entertaining sport, where the numerous delays give sufficient chance to relax without being long enough to ever leave you bored.
The price certainly shouldn’t act as a deterrent: AR$220 for two matches of polo featuring the world’s best players with good seats for one of the matches is an absolute bargain. Each match lasts for around two hours, so in terms of value for money, polo may well be one of the best sporting events you could go to in Argentina, despite the very upper-class image of the sport.
Maybe it’s time to grit your teeth, lose your distrust of all things cheto and give polo a try. Even if you decide it’s not for you, the bar should help you soldier your way through the afternoon. There are matches on both days over the next few weekends, with the final taking place on Saturday December 12. Tickets can be bought here.