31st March 2016: When Nathan Stagno was awarded the FIH Umpire of the Year for 2015, he said it was not just a big moment for him personally but for sport in general in Gibraltar.
Speaking about the award – which he was presented with by FIH Board Member Marijke Fleuren last Sunday in Amsterdam – Stagno said that he sees himself as an ambassador for the rocky peninsula jutting into the Alboran Sea.
“Nobody [from Gibraltar] has gone to the Olympics except for one of my son’s friends, Georgina Cassar, in gymnastics,” he said of his career. “[Because of this] the Gibraltarians are very proud of who I am and where I have come from.”
“Coming from a small place with about 200 players, receiving this award for being the best umpire in 2015 after doing 100 games, I am very proud to be a big ambassador for Gibraltar.”
Originally a player with his club, Collegians, Stagno started umpiring in 1997, before receiving his first FIH badge in 1999. From there, he moved through the grades, earning his place on the World Panel in 2010 and has been on it ever since, officiating at the 2012 Olympics in London.
He passed the 100-match mark in 2015, receiving his golden whistle, while 2016 will be his last year of international umpiring. Indeed, he will finish on a high with appointments on the horizon at the EHL FINAL4, the Champions Trophy, finishing with the Rio Olympics.
Asked whether he feels he is the best umpire around, though, he says that the top officials are all very much at the same level.
“I insist that all my colleagues on the Olympic list are all at the same level and are great umpires. John Wright, Hamish [Jamson], Christian Blasch and so on – we are all very good umpires. We are a very close team.”
It has been quite a journey from his start in Gibraltar, a country with just 200 hockey players and always in need of officials.
“For me, I actually prefer umpiring than playing. You always need club players to help out and it became a case of ‘Nathan will do it’. And then it got to the stage where I was nominated to go out to Europe and guys like Ray O’Connor and Peter von Reth saw me and told me I was doing a good job so I continued to do it.
Indeed, being from one of the smaller nations has, perhaps, had an extra positive effect in being able to pick up ever more important tournament call-ups.
“When I say it is a small group of umpires, we only had two international umpires. But the good thing is that, when you have to send a club to a European competition, you have to send an umpire.
“When the umpires managers saw me [at those events], they believed in me and promoted me. Once you get promoted to Grade 1, then you are almost always a neutral which means you can work at any event.”
He has become one of the most recognisable umpires on the circuit with his expressive style. At the EHL KO16 last Saturday evening, he was the umpire when Rob van der Horst scored a wonder goal; his signal for the goal was suitably emphatic, showing an empathy for a truly special moment.
And he says that this is important in being one of the best umpires in the world.
“Be yourself! I am Latin! You have to be yourself on the pitch. If something like moving your hands in a certain way on the pitch helps, you do it. You do not want to overdo it. The players accept it and respect it.”
He adds, too, that the most important part to being a top whistleblower is about taking on board advice from all angles, be it from a junior umpire to the most senior umpire’s manager.
“Believe that you are the best umpire but don’t show off. Take the decisions and advice from everyone, even if they are the lowest ranked umpire in your group. If I can reach this level, then anyone can reach it.
“Step by step. First walk, don’t run. Every step of the way, take advice you require and the advice from the umpires managers. If you think that it is useful for you, keep that advice with you. If you don’t think it’s right for you, wait for the next advice that works for you.”
Nathan Stagno in action during the EHL KO16 (EHL/Frank Uijlenbroek)
Main photograph: Nathan pictured with his EHL umpiring colleagues, following the presentation of his 2015 FIH