With the World Cup 2019 well underway in Japan, 20 countries from around the world are competing for the sport’s highest honor.
But in Mexico, a country more interested in football, there’s a growing sport that most traditional rugger fans have never heard of: underwater rugby.
It’s a game invented in the 1960s in Germany, by diving enthusiasts looking to keep active during the freezing winter months, when low temperatures prevented them from being in the oceans.
Today, in Mexico City, the sport has been brought to the country by Colombian Isabel Botero, who has founded the first underwater rugby sports club, which meets three times a week to play.
“The sport demands a lot of speed, power, capacity, and skill in the water. It’s adrenaline-filled, which is why people like it,” she said.
“It’s also one of the only sports played in a three-dimensional arena. As well as side-to-side, and forward and back, you have to think about moving up, down and diagonally. It’s very dynamic.”
Underwater rugby is played with a non-floating ball, passed between 3-player teams attempting to deposit it in a basket to score. All the action happens underwater, and players substitute in and out with teammates on the surface taking time out to breathe.
It’s a serious workout, and many of the players are watersports professionals, like Yacbeth Mendiola, one of the world’s top freedivers.
“To be able to do a sport that incorporates my own skills was amazing,” he said. “Using your lung capacity in such an explosive, powerful and dynamic game the only thing you can do is be totally concentrated on the game underwater.”
Yet while aquatic rugby may be niche, even the original terrestrial game can be hard to find in Latin America. Argentina and Uruguay are the only countries from the region represented at the tournament.
Yet rugby is growing in Mexico. The country’s Rugby Federation has seen a growth in its national leagues from 1,200 players to 12,000 in just eight years. Much of that is thanks, firstly to the sport being named an Olympic event, and secondly due to the strategy employed by the national board, led by Francisco Echeguren.
“It was not so easy to grow rugby in Mexico, because people didn’t know what rugby is. We started hiring people to say hi, we want to start rugby in your university, your school, your Deportivo, and for three months we are going to put everything for free. And that’s how we started with that.”
For both sports, the tournament in Japan is a good way to attract greater interest.
As rugby’s flagship event is underway on the other side of the world, proponents of the sport here in Mexico – both traditional and aquatic – hope that the excitement of the 2019 World Cup will help raise their own profile, and widen the game’s global appeal.