Polo, a jewel in Andalucía's sporting scene

The tournament is one of the four best in the world.
The tournament is one of the four best in the world. / G. Berner
  • Santa María Polo Club's showpiece tournament this summer provides not only a high-level on-field spectacle, but also a terrific all-round visitor experience

It's the height of summer in Sotogrande, the setting once again for the area's International Polo Tournament, this year celebrating its 47th edition. The landscape is comprised of two colours; blue, for the rich cloudless sky, and green for the lush expanse of grass on which the action takes place. Chuck in some neatly-ironed shirts, interludes of clinking glasses and a selection of food, and there you have it, a beautiful experience, and perhaps one of Andalucía's best-kept secrets.

The games take place at the Santa María Polo Club - located roughly halfway between Gibraltar and Estepona - until 1 September, with matches beginning at any time between 5.30pm and 7pm each day, apart from a brief rest on 27 August.

Competitions are classified by handicaps and are completely free to attend apart from the semi-finals and finals of the Gold Cup Medium Handicap event and the final of the Gold Cup High Handicap, won last year by the Ayala team, which included Argentinian star player Facundo Pieres.

The club provides a perfect view of the pitch, and although every game does not draw eagle-eyed attention, that does not detract whatsoever from the sport's appeal.

Its attraction lies in the total spectator experience. The sport has a finesse and tranquillity about it - not to diminish its competitive edge - which spreads from the field to the balconies, stands and terraces decked out with cheerful onlookers.

"What we want to promote is a social event. It's OK for us that not everybody knows the rules or the horses as well as people do in England and Argentina," says Joaquín Blanco Cardenas, Director of Communications and Marketing at the club. "The most important thing is that people like the visual aspect of the sport.

"We want a mix between people who are engaged in the action, and those who come to enjoy the social experience."

In polo, two teams of four mounted horses compete to outscore each other, achieved through striking the ball into the opposition goal using long wooden mallets.

After each conversion, the teams swap ends unless the goal has come from a penalty.

On average, the tournament attracts teams from over 20 different countries each year. High and Medium handicap teams play matches of six seven-minute periods called 'chukkas'. There is frequent rotation of horses throughout the contests to ensure high-energy competition.

"Polo in Santa María is relatively unknown at the moment to Costa del Sol residents," admits Blanco Cardenas. "But many people who come here will visit again because it's so spectacular.

"It's growing little by little. In the last year or so, we are seeing more foreign residents and tourists coming to visit the event."

This is one of the sport's four most prestigious tournaments, alongside others in England, the USA and Argentina, where the game is hugely popular after it was introduced by the British in the late nineteenth century. Argentina currently dominates the world rankings for the best polo players.

The sport can be found elsewhere too, and has a presence in Asia, with many of polo's promising talents coming from Pakistan.

Polo carries an air of class and quality, with perfectly-maintained facilities and a manicured green surface for the graceful horses to strut their stuff. It is a classy environment, with sponsors in every corner, opportunities to spend money and even places for children to play, making it ideal for a family visit.

"The objective, evidently, is to attract much more of the foreign public on the Costa. The timetabling of the event [in the early evening] is well suited to the northern-European lifestyle,"says Blanco Cardenas.

"I want more people to come and visit so that they can find out more about the sport."

The International Polo Tournament at Sotogrande provides an excellent exhibition of the world's best teams. Polo, whether it be on the pitch or in the stands, has something to offer everyone and is one of Andalucía's lesser-known sporting gems.