In Argentina, the mecca of polo, women swing mallets in first World Cup

BUENOS AIRES, April 12 (Reuters) – Some of the world’s top women polo players compete this week in Argentina in the sport’s first-ever female World Cup, the culmination of years of growing opportunity in a game known for its equestrian allure and high-society sensibilities.

The woman’s polo World Cup got under way last Saturday at the Cathedral stadium in the leafy Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, and will conclude on April 16 after the week-long tournament. The competition features teams from the home country, the United States, Brazil, England, Italy and Ireland.

“In recent years, the growth of women’s polo has been so impressive,” Clara Cassino, a top Argentine player, told Reuters. “Each year it grows so much, more so for women’s polo than for the men,” she added, in a nod to the addition of women’s tournaments in Argentina and beyond.

An earlier tournament known as the Women’s Polo Open kicked off in Buenos Aires five years ago with its own player rating system, or handicap, and is held each year concurrent with a men’s tournament, which dates back more than a century.

The women’s tournament is credited with inspiring similar competitions in recent years in Britain and the United States as the game has grown in popularity.

Polo, often dubbed the sport of kings, is believed to be one of the world’s oldest known team sports, but traditionally only open to men.

It was brought to Argentina’s sprawling plains, or pampas, by British immigrants in the late 1800s, where it found a home alongside the South American country’s iconic gaucho cowboys.

Today, Argentina is among the top countries where polo is played, as well as being a major exporter of horses specially bred for the sport.

The game is played with teams of four horse-mounted players who aim to score points by hitting a ball through goal posts with long wooden mallets at the ends of the 300-yard-long (274-meter) grassy field.

Modern polo combines high-tech innovations, including horse cloning, with artisan-made studs, saddles and boots, and now new opportunities for women who want to play.

In an interview, Azucena Uranga, a 20-year-old member of the Argentine national team, cheered the chance to compete in the first World Cup.

“It gives us our own place and an incredible opportunity, one that maybe we’ll only fully realize in a few years,” she said.

Delfin Uranga, Azucena’s father and the president of Argentina’s polo association, stressed that the country’s international leadership in the sport is especially important because other nations often follow its lead.

“It sends a message to the world,” he said, “to give women an opportunity to compete at the same level as men.”

Reporting by Lucila Sigal; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Leslie Adler

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