Opinion

'Crisis point' - How Stajcic sacking left Matildas in tatters

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Disgraceful. Outrageous. Embarrassing. Nightmare. Mess. Crisis. These are just some of the adjectives that have been used to describe what has been a shamefully dark period for women’s football in Australia over the last fortnight.

Ever since the news broke that Football Federation Australia had shockingly parted ways with Matildas head coach Alen Stajcic, just five months out from the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the football community has been plunged into chaos. 

FFA chief executive David Gallop and chairman Chris Nikou tried unsuccessfully to communicate the jarring revelation to the public and left everyone with more questions than answers, thus extending the shelf life of this insidious story.

"The ultimate responsibility for leading the team environment and driving change in culture and environment rests with the head coach. We no longer feel confident Alen is the right person to lead the team and the staff," Gallop said.

"There's definitely some serious findings from the surveys and discussions and a view that things have deteriorated in recent times.”

"It's fair to say that workplace issues around the culture of the set-up but it's difficult to go into specifics.”

The speculation around the reasons behind Stajcic’s dramatic sacking has morphed into an online feeding frenzy, with some believing that anonymous feedback collected by Professional Footballers Australia and Our Watch sealed his fate or that the board have been “hoodwinked by management and potentially others”.

Most of the country’s journalists and pundits have weighed in on the saga, with some embarrassingly trying to discredit PFA and Our Watch, while one former Socceroo believes that “there are those within the FFA who have gone out with an agenda to get rid of Alen Stajcic.”

On Thursday, FFA announced that director Heather Reid had been granted an indefinite leave of absence from the board to undergo chemotherapy and it’s no secret that she, along with her fellow directors, have been the subject of heavy scrutiny.  

The players have also been attacked and their mentality has been called into question with conspiracy theorists suggesting that this fiasco is due to “player power” or that “they can’t cope with the pressure to perform”.

Those with a connection to women’s football, including myself, have been questioned relentlessly regarding why we have taken a particular stance, yet those who have conflicting views and are so resolute in their positions, haven’t revealed where their intelligence has come from either.   

The only thing that’s clear in all of this, is just how unclear everything has become. 

When I spoke to credible sources, embedded within women’s football in the aftermath, they were surprised at the timing but not necessarily the news that there were certain individuals within the national team environment that were the purveyors of a poor culture.

A fragment of that has been corroborated in the contents of the PFA’s Wellbeing Audit - conducted in August last year - and together with the Our Watch report, it clearly sent some smoke signals to the powers that be that could not be ignored.  

ABC journalist, Tracey Holmes published some of the confidential findings extracted from the PFA’s report, allegedly formulated in collaboration with Stajcic and FFA, in an article.

“A quarter of the players who responded reported feeling psychological distress and many were afraid to seek support, believing it would be held against them,” Holmes wrote. 

“Fewer than 20 per cent of them said they felt the team environment was conducive to making them better players or people.”

These discoveries, although deeply concerning, reportedly did not warrant Stajcic’s sacking.  

So, after over four years at the helm, what did?

Throughout this entire debacle, it has been my objective to draw on what I have been privy to in my 10 years as a studying and practicing journalist whilst covering the W-League, a slew of Matildas internationals plus a Women’s World Cup, to encourage the public to stay open-minded in pursuit of the truth.

However, the ‘truth’ is a distorted and highly untrustworthy character in this narrative because depending upon who’s telling the story, each person believes their version to be true.

That’s not to say they couldn’t be, it just means that an individual’s experience can’t possibly account for the entire picture.  

Speak to one source and they will allege that Stajcic went into a meeting with FFA where he was confronted with the report findings but that he refused to accept responsibility for the environment. 

The source went on to allege that Stajcic had “no solution to what is described as a dysfunctional environment and terrible culture in the team.”

In my dealings with another contact, they intimated that Stajcic was the victim of “bad management” and that he wasn’t afforded ‘due process’ which, legally speaking means he wasn’t given a reason behind his dismissal and that “the ‘Lesbian Mafia’ had an agenda against him”. 

A more sinister side to the dressing room culture has also emerged, with rumours that relationships amongst teammates that went sour contributed to the poor team morale, hence the negative responses in the surveys. 

In an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald, a Matildas player, who remained nameless, denied that there were any divisions within the group saying “there’s no rift. The Matildas are the closest bunch of girls.” 

However, speak to a different source closely connected to the group and they will tell you that in the days after the news broke that “this is a very fractured group but they’ve made some good progress. They will be ok.”

The same person also said “a lot of the players have become immune to what’s going on and it’s become part of their normal. That doesn’t mean it’s ok.”

Just last year, I was privy to conversations where a respected figure in women’s football was utterly scathing of the entire Matildas coaching staff and the way in which a player would return from camp. However, that same person recently supported Stajcic publicly.

It didn’t just stop with Stajcic’s departure either.

Assistant to Alen for 18 months, Nahuel Arrarte and goalkeeping coach, Paul Jones also submitted their resignations, with Arrarte pledging his support for the fallen Matildas coach publicly via a Football Coaches Australia statement. 

It’s also been difficult to see beyond the reactions of some of the players both past and present, who have all advocated for Stajcic in their own way yet, when you consider some of the aforementioned findings from the PFA report, who would be bold enough to set the record straight in this vicious climate? 

So you see, it’s been extraordinarily difficult to make sense of a situation that is littered with conflicting information and my warning to everyone has been, in the absence of any real hard facts, it’s dangerous to side with one view or the other.

The only people that truly know what went on are the players, the coaching staff and the FFA board - the rest of us are just bystanders trying to make sense of this train wreck without knowing exactly who or what, caused the accident. 

To make this into a gender issue is also just as ridiculous - Hesterine de Reus didn’t last anywhere near as long as Stajcic did and was axed with little to no reaction from the public so that argument is simply born out of ignorance.

As for the surveys?

It is not uncommon for player unions or Football Associations to conduct routine, anonymous surveys of their staff and players.

Earlier this month, a report surfaced from England stipulating that “cocaine use is ‘widespread’ among English footballers”.

This information was collected via an anonymous survey of the players in 2005.

To quell any lingering doubt, according to another article in the Sydney Morning Herald, an Our Watch spokesperson also made it clear that they “do not outline actions to be taken against individual staff members.”

It’s also important to try and push beyond one’s hatred towards the governing body when attempting to come to a specific conclusion because as I’ve discovered, everyone involved here has an agenda - whether it’s good, bad or somewhere in the middle.

It's not known on what grounds the board sacked Stajcic, and whether those grounds were legitimate but even if they were - the FFA’s relationship with all of the key stakeholders has become so fractured that they simply cannot be trusted. 

Some outspoken figures are using their impassioned defence of Stajcic, and his reputation, as a smokescreen to mask their own ill-fated experiences with the FFA over the years or their close personal friendship with him, which puts the credibility of their motivations in serious doubt.   

It’s no secret that I have been one of FFA’s biggest detractors in my time but as a journalist, I have no choice but to think critically around this issue and scratch beneath the surface of what is the most complex story I have ever come across.

That’s why I continue to question why a CEO, who is a qualified lawyer and an organisation stacked with legal expertise, would make such a dramatic decision to terminate a coach’s contract so close to a World Cup, if they knew it could come back to haunt them both publicly and legally?  

Worse still, if the Head of Women’s Football Emma Highwood, the Head of National Performance Luke Casserly and the CEO David Gallop weren’t aware of such goings on, or did know and didn’t act sooner, how can they continue to justify their positions within the FFA? 

From the top of the organisation, to the very bottom - no one should be stalking those halls feeling safe given the backlash, and an inquiry has been requested by the Association of Australian Football Clubs who are “dismayed at the way the sacking has played out”.

It’s an inquiry that must happen because this has been a public relations disaster of epic proportions. 

It has showcased the hugely disappointing lack of leadership shown by the newly elected board, meaning - like Cricket Australia and the Australian Olympic Committee - we are not immune to drama and that the game overall has reached a crisis point. 

Sadly though, so much damage has already been done - no thanks to the peripheral conversations around this particular issue.  

This story has evolved into something that extends well beyond the news of Stajcic’s sacking and like cannibals, we have begun attacking one another and creating an even bigger divide within this already fragile football fraternity.

These reported cultural issues aren’t just restricted to dressing rooms, it’s been reflected in a series of venomous, hate-fuelled comments online, in the way it’s been reported and has highlighted that as a community we still have a lot of growing up to do because the opinions of women’s football are still largely imbued in the past.

Just three years ago, I watched Matildas players breakdown in tears because they were in debt and in danger of becoming homeless after they tried to juggle part-time work, studies and representing their various clubs and country. 

Together with the support of the Socceroos cohort, an overwhelming majority stood together to fight for their rights in 2015 and went on strike, resulting in a history-making collective bargaining agreement for all current and future players.  

This playing group, including those who have gone before them, are some of the toughest athletes on the planet and have been to hell and back to chase their dreams.  

Some of these footballers haven’t had an off-season in at least five years because they are scampering between the W-League, NWSL and various other leagues around the world, yet it’s somehow surprising to some to hear that they are suffering physically and psychologically. 

Another harsh reality out of all of this is that the public had become so enamoured with the Matildas brand, the highly coveted global award nominations that Sam Kerr attracted and being ranked sixth in the world, that they seemingly forgot to ask any real football-related questions. 

Very few actually dug deep and created headlines out of several cracks that were beginning to show some time ago, not to mention a player publicly confessing that the team had never been prepared to face a back three after the international friendly loss to France in October.

Just imagine if Maty Ryan told reporters that Graham Arnold had never primed them for such a scenario after a loss to a side ranked third in the world.

They would be calling for the coach’s head but in the case of the Matildas, the standards of criticism are different and it was far easier to be a cheerleader than a detractor.  

Prior to the disappointing performances in the friendlies against France and England, plus the shock loss to Chile, there was the AFC Asian Cup.

The Matildas reached the final and ultimately lost to Japan but we were lucky to scrape through past a Thailand side reduced to 10 players, needing penalties to advance.

First choice goalkeeper Lydia Williams, Sam Kerr, Steph Catley and midfielder Emily van Egmond were all rested for that match: a semi-final, at a major tournament, no less. 

Again, very few pressed Stajcic on his selections and it certainly didn’t make the kind of headlines that van Marwijk’s decision to leave Tim Cahill out of the match against Denmark in Russia did. 

In amongst that, there was the issue of frequently playing players out of position, individuals playing through injury and holding off surgery to represent their country, plus rumblings of extreme burn out doing the rounds within football circles. 

Off the back of the friendlies, myself, former Matildas Joey Peters and Catherine Cannuli began to dissect some of these topics on-air and I distinctly remember taking issue with the fact that the team were being treated like a ‘science experiment’ less than a year out from a World Cup.  

Not to mention, the hugely bizarre comments Stajcic made about one of Australia’s brightest young talents Mary Fowler’s family back in November. 

These are just a few examples I have used to allow for greater context but it also goes without saying that what Stajcic managed to achieve in his time at Sydney FC, and with this blissfully talented generation of Matildas players, was immense.

He guided the team to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2015 and Olympic Games in 2016, reached two Asian Cup finals, won the Tournament of Nations in 2017 and also reached a high of number four in the women’s world rankings. 

On a personal level, he was also a delight to deal with and I always had an enormous amount of respect for him but I was a member of the media so my opinion is irrelevant. 

The entire nation has revelled in every glory-soaked moment with him and the team but how has this absence of real media scrutiny and the nation’s cherry picking of information contributed to the current situation?

It’s led the public, who are only gleaning the success of this Matildas side from the absolute surface, to believe that all was well and that Stajcic’s sacking is one the greatest disgrace’s in the history of Australian sport. 

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t but if the decision to sack him was done so without merit, then we can surely expect Stajcic to pursue legal remedy through the courts and for the wrath of justice to rain down heavily on the governing body. 

As it stands, Stajcic has declined to make any public comments for legal reasons and until he does, the public may never know what went on from his perspective.  

Whether or not that eventuates remains the mystery but right now the questions are just as pertinent as the answers. 

Perhaps those of us with closer links to women’s football also needed to take greater responsibility in the way we have reported information over the years, so that in future these so called ‘truths’ won’t come as such a shock. 

There’s that word again, truth.

It’s what we’re all yearning for but as we’ve learned in the world of football, it’s terribly hard to come by - depending on who’s selling it of course.