Article written by team mate – AFL boundary umpire, Michael Saunders

The background for almost all umpires follows a pretty standard script. First of all I would pose a few questions:

  • Did you grow up in a southern state?
  • Does your family follow the game?
  • Did you support a club growing up?
  • Did you play a bit of (average) junior footy?

When someone can reach the AFL umpiring ranks without ticking a single one of these boxes, it makes for a very interesting story.

Sergio Villagra arrived in Australia from Chile (Vina del Mar if you want to Google Map it) as an 11 year old in 1985 with his family – by plane, not boat, as he is quick to point out. They were seeking a better future in Australia and to escape a nation that had been crippled by dictatorial regime. Settling in south-eastern Sydney, it was a difficult transition for Sergio, as his English was limited to ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Maroubra High was a tough place to be as an immigrant and by Sergio’s own admission he always felt like a bit of an outsider.

His first contact to AFL came through a friend in 1995 when he was invited to a game at the SCG.

The game had started and they were making their way around the concourse to their seats. Sergio got a glimpse of the ground out through an aisle and heard that familiar roar of the crowd. His initial thought was “what the hell was that?!?!” and from that moment on he was hooked. For the next few years Sergio was at games every few weeks and was absorbed in the golden era of Tony Lockett and Paul Kelly lighting up the SCG.

Fast forward to 1999, and a chance conversation with a colleague from work – who was an umpire in the Sydney AFL competition – took Sergio’s involvement in the game to the next level. He suggested Sergio come down and get involved. Sergio had always been fascinated by the goal umpires, who could make the crowd go crazy just with the slightest of hand signals!

So down to the Reg Bartley Oval Sergio went, without a clue about what he was getting himself in to. On his first night he met two of the most influential people in his umpiring career, coach Ken Ray, and grand final umpire Mike Heinrichs. From the outset Sergio was warmly welcomed and embraced by the group – a stark contrast to Maroubra High. From the outset, Sergio was dedicated to learn and improve his craft, mirroring the movements and actions of Mike. It was obvious from early on that Sergio possessed the natural talent to progress and make a very good goal umpire.

Over the next couple of years Sergio would sit up in the Brewongle Stand at the SCG and keep a very close eye on the goal umpires, to see exactly what the top guys were doing. He rose through the Sydney ranks swiftly, and in three short years, he was offered a contract for a spot on the AFL list for 2002.

He recalls his memorable first game. Before the game, he was inspired by David Yole’s words of wisdom – “Whatever you do – don’t f*** it up!”. The game was Sydney vs. North Melbourne, and despite it being the middle of winter, he was in a sweat walking out. The finish was a memorable one, with Darren Cresswell kicking the winning goal in the dying stages, straight over the goal umpire’s head – Sergio’s.

Twelve seasons later and Sergio has recognised that it is time to put the flags away, with this Friday’s Sydney vs. Hawthorn match his 131st. Given that the bulk of his seasons consisted of a game every other week whilst Sydney only had one team, achieving a 100 game milestone is a real landmark of endurance.

There have been a number of challenges Sergio has had to overcome to maintain his position on the AFL panel:

  • When first listed, he weighed in at 96kg, and over the years with the introduction of fitness testing he has dropped that to 76kg. He credits umpiring as being the catalyst for changing his attitude towards living a healthier lifestyle that he will carry into retirement.
  • He has never trained at a facility with proper goal posts, having to make do with makeshift portable posts.
  • For at least the last 5 years, he has been the sole AFL goal umpire training in Sydney, which means he misses out on the peer group coaching.

Sergio is a real favourite of the umpiring fraternity, with his unique personality and sense of humour. A real team-first man, he wants to see us all succeed and his support and encouragement is always appreciated in the rooms. For travelling field umpires, Sergio has been a mainstay of the NSW/ACT matches, and his absence will be noteworthy and missed. Speaking with him, you get a sense of how much umpiring means to him and its role in his integration to a foreign country.

Knowing that this season would be his last since early into the year, he has taken the pressure off himself and umpired with a more relaxed attitude, which has lead to this being one of his finest years and showing he is still well on top of his craft.

He looks forward to spending more quality time with his son and girlfriend, getting to more live music gigs, and enjoying a few more casual cigars – certainly well earned. He thanks his umpiring colleagues for the support and friendships, and coaches for their help in his development.

His advice to umpires with AFL aspirations: Always ask questions, imitate the best, enjoy it, and when things seem to get ‘too hard’ talk to someone.

Congratulations on a great career Sergio and best wishes for the future

Sergio Villagra