Refereeing is such a part of the water polo landscape, that it is an unescapable position within our discipline and married closely to the players and coaches.

Anyone pursuing this sporting career has to have discipline and commitment and be fairly think-skinned.

One person who encompasses all those traits is Australian Daniel Flahive, a latecomer to the whistle after a hefty playing and coaching career, followed by a whirlwind few decades that have seen him criss-crossing the Australian continent and the globe as a sought-after official of the highest calibre.

Actually, as this article goes to press, Flahive is overseeing the referees at the World Aquatics Masters Championships in Doha, Qatar.

Image Source: Russell McKinnon/World Aquatics

Scoring Goals caught up with Flahive during a major Australian championship in January and posed questions regarding the life of a referee on the international stage and what is required to become outstanding in the role.

How did you start as a referee?

“I was probably asked to referee because I was being abusive to referees. I started doing state team nationals and when it changed to a national league.”

What is the optimum pathway for a prospective referee?

“The best way to take a pathway is to start from under-12s and work your way through. You don’t want to think you are good enough to go straight to under-18s or doing seniors. You don’t learn enough by doing that. I think, you must do different age groups and along the way you have more experienced referees than you are there who will help you along the way and point you in the right direction.

“We must keep our experienced referees around to help the inexperienced referees coming up and you must listen to these referees. Whether they are males or females, they have been around and you must listen to what they have to say as they have probably 20 years or so refereeing the game.

“You take on board what they say. It’s a very big learning curve when you first start out refereeing, but the more you listen to experienced referees the better you will be.

“Just to sit around and talk to them after games and go through different scenarios is the best way to learn.”

Image Source: Russell McKinnon/World Aquatics

It seems listening is important:

“You’ve gotta be smart in how you do it. You can’t be an arrogant referee. You have to listen to people around you. You also have to listen to the players and to the coaches. If they’re not abusive to you, you take on board what they say. If they are abusive to you, you are well within your rights to do what is needed — yellow card, etc.

“Senior referees taught me that. You have got to be smart when to do certain things, when doing a yellow card or red card.”

Is there a good age to start?

“I think by starting off at a younger age group and working your way through, it builds up a thicker skin and a better understanding of what the players and coaches are going through at a higher level.

“Like talking to the coach during the game and telling him to be calm; that only comes from doing lots and lots of games.

“The trouble today is that many players want to skip the pathway and go straight into national league. You just can’t do that because you don’t have the experience and the knowledge that comes from doing five years of juniors before getting to seniors.

"The better referees have done their time by doing the junior competition and I think that makes them better referees. The same with players, who come through the ranks up into the seniors and become better players.

“We must have respect for the coaches and players and that works vice versa.”

Image Source: Russell McKinnon/World Aquatics

Flahive was a latecomer to the refereeing ranks, having played 250 national league matches during more than a decade and then coached national league for a further five years.

“I was a very late starter, probably making the FINA panel at 45 and that’s a very late start for anyone nowadays with most starting at around 25 and 30.

“In saying that, my background as a player and a coach makes me a better referee. I really mean that. It’s a really big step going from national league to international competition. I was lucky, I went straight into junior world champs in America. I was very lucky. I was in the right spot at the right time.

“I spoke to Michael Hart, Noel Harrod and John Whitehouse (former Australian international and Olympic referees) and they gave me feedback. Even so, it was a huge surprise and shock to go from a state championship to a world junior championship. The pressure that you are under and the crowds was very nerve-wracking, but doing many matches beforehand really helped.”

On being a Southern Hemisphere referee?

“They don’t see us enough. To go from Australia to Europe and no-one knowing you as such was a real eye-opener. However, if you referee to the rules, you gain respect. By getting most of the decisions right, they will give you the respect you deserve.”

On mixing with referees from all continents?

“Sit back and listen to what they all say and just asking a few questions here and there. We all discuss the games at the end of the day’s play. For me it was good to sit back and listen as to why calls were made.”

On his travels with water polo:

“I’ve been very lucky; I’ve toured for 17 years now, pretty much any country in the world where they play water polo, I have been. Very blessed. I cannot look back and say at any time I did not enjoy it and didn’t have fun. I was so happy that I was asked to come from coaching to refereeing, because as a coach you have the stress of game-day plans and the like and it’s really stressful.

“As a referee we have our one game and we discuss it afterwards. We have delegates and watch videos, but then I’m finished. We can go out with other referees, have a beer, chat about games. It’s not the pressure of being a coach.

"I’ve loved it and I recommend it to every person with an interest in refereeing water polo. It can take you to any country in the world.”

Image Source: Russell McKinnon/World Aquatics

Have you modelled yourself on anyone?

“No. I am who I am and I referee to what I see and I don’t change it for anyone. If you change then you are not being true to yourself and that is not who I am. You must make your calls naturally. There are people we look up to, but in the end, you referee to how you feel you should referee. That’s the best way."


"Everyone wants to go to the Olympics. I did two Olympics — 2012-2016 — I did every world champs from 2007 to 2021; I did men’s World Cup and World League gold-medal games in Kazakhstan— huge highlights of my career. In 2019, I did the gold-medal final of the women’s world championships in 2019.

"To top it all off at 2016 Olympic Games I did both men’s and women’s semifinals. Did I get a gold-medal game? No. It didn’t worry me because semifinal matches are so much harder than the gold-medal game."

Ed: Other gold-medal matches included the finals of the Olympic Games Qualification Tournaments for men in Edmonton, Canada in 2012 and for women in Gouda, Netherlands in 2016.

Image Source: Russell McKinnon/World Aquatics

World Masters in Budapest in 2017?

Yes, Gabor Boros (AUS) and I did the millennial-team, gold-medal final, the team that won three Olympic gold medals —in front of about 8000 people. The stands were packed. The atmosphere was magnificent. That was obviously a very big highlight of my career. The Hungarians won. The noise in that arena was just amazing."

In summary

Flahive is Australia’s greatest referee and even though he has left the international stage, he has been refereeing and delegating at multiple national championships, proving that experienced referees have to stick around to guide the younger cohort.

Ed: Photos taken at the 2023 World Aquatics Masters Championships, Kumamoto, Japan, where Flahive was one of the international referees.

Main picture: With Liz Burman, 2004 Olympic referee from New Zealand, now living in Australia; and Canadian referee Mikhail Dykman.

Second picture: With a former Japanese international.

Third picture: The four non-Japanese referees at the World Masters — Mikailis Kouretas (GRE), Liz Burman (AUS), Russell McKinnon (AUS) and Flahive.

Fourth picture:  Flahive with some of the Japanese referees.

Fifth picture: Three Olympic referees — Burman (2004), Flahive (2012, 16) and Japan's Asumi Tsuzaki (2020).

Sixth picture: The four four international refs.