We all feel for the wonderful Matildas after yesterday’s heartbreaking result against Norway, but nevertheless need to take the time to reflect on a period of intense turmoil and ultimate disappointment.
We would have preferred to do so after stunning success in France, of course, but dealing with underlying issues is important to improve and move forward.
Disappointment is a part of sport and despite the awful decision on the penalty (which should not have been overturned under VAR rules) and questionable red card, congratulating Norway is important.
They played outstanding football. As good in the first half as anything seen in the tournament and we had no answer. They forced Australia back onto the edge of our box with ease, created numerous chances and played the sort of football we aspire to.
We can argue about VAR decisions forever, however we also got away with at least one against Brazil. I thought Australia conceded a clear penalty late in the game, which was not reviewed. We would have been upset if that was us on the opposing side.
We are aggrieved when it goes against us and move on when it’s in our favour. That’s football.
In any event, we need to play better. Not only to fight back, which the Matildas are incredible at by virtue of an extraordinary spirit, but control games and be much better with the ball against teams who wish to stop us.
Having control of the ball against counter attacking teams is not control, it’s an invitation. What Norway did to Australia in the first half is football. Proving your quality, under pressure, against a team trying to stop you playing.
We need to identify where we are not strong, what the best nations are doing, where women’s football is headed and how we should be aiming to succeed. Then applying this down through the development system.
I was at FNSW for almost six years, half with some fantastic young female players. Not once did I receive any direction as to what had been learnt from tournament failures at youth level, where improvement was required and what types of players were desirable. We have a long way to go in this regard.
The rest of the world is improving quickly. Spain, Italy, Netherlands and as these countries invest in their domestic leagues, they lift everyone else as well. Spain, for example, won the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup last year and lost the final of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, two tournaments that Australia cannot even qualify for. This, after a relatively short period of focus and investment. There are 15 Barcelona players at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, only 10 of them playing for Spain.
Australia has enjoyed a strong period, but this can dissipate overnight if we aren’t focused on improvement, unification, knowledge transfer and uplifting standards across the board. The W-League and NWSL now face a huge challenge. Europe has woken up to women’s football and the Spanish FA last week announced increased investment at the same time as Real Madrid committed to their first female professional team.
The W-League ranks highly among global competitions presently. In five years, the context will be different. Are we going to invest now, expand and take the competition year round, or risk losing our best players to major European clubs as their leagues expand?
The women’s game carries our best opportunity for global success, and deserves equal respect and conditions - it should be prioritised. I’m not sure where plans sit currently for the professional game or a proposed female second tier and, in the context of major structural reform, infighting and uncertainty, an opportunity can be lost.
Australia needs a view as to where Asian football is headed, how Asia intends to become more competitive and what this long term strategy looks like. It is vital that we take a local, regional and international view or we can lose our current position quickly.
Currently, the FFA has one technical director, newly appointed. It needs a female technical head, and to develop views on all of these areas. This woman would also ensure that a female view is prioritised at all levels, ensuring that we don’t have another review panel full of men, as happened last week. Periodic reviews are beneficial, but it speaks volumes about FFA culture that not a single woman was involved.
As to the review of how Australia entered another World Cup with an interim coach, it needs to be retrospective over several years and independent, obviously. The point is not about Alen Stajcic per se, but to ensure no national team has to enter another critically important tournament in a state of instability.
It is natural that the players say it had no effect. Their job is to move on immediately, to perform for whomever is in the role and do the best for their country and professional players become very skilled at doing so. But that’s not the point.
Changing coach so close to a four year focal point is a compromise to stability and continuity. It can, and did, impede Australia’s chances for success. The outcry was greater than the Socceroos last year, largely because the women were seen as a genuine title chance, but the principle is the same. The entire game suffers when we enter tournaments without an optimal chance at achievement.
David Gallop has stated that, on the evidence of the multiple reviews, Stajcic had to be relieved of duty. That also misses the point. The question is how did it come to that? How was the national team managed into a situation where a coach was relieved of his position (rightly or wrongly) so close to the tournament?
I want to know what happened in the last year or two, not on the day the final review into team culture landed. Issues had clearly built over a period of time, necessitating several reviews. Gallop said that ‘ultimate responsibility’ rested with the coach. That’s not true. Ultimate responsibility rests with the chair of the organisation as represented by the CEO. Gallop must also be under review, not in control of it.
In this way we can also review organisational culture, not just the final decision, to ensure lessons are learnt and issues avoided in future and this should include discussions with Ange Postecoglou and Alen Stajcic (if possible), Hesterine de Roo, Paul Okon and Graham Arnold to understand where the national teams are at, what the process has been and how stability can be achieved along with success.
Given that the current FFA Board has no former players or coaches, and that Gallop is not capable in this area, the current coaches will have little support, advice and advocates. This is a problem.
Speaking of which, Ante Milicic did well in difficult circumstances. My personal view is that changing the defensive principles immediately prior to the tournament was ill advised and although we all agree the team never showed its best, in general he managed the group and matches very well. It was unfortunate that Kyah Simon was missing and the marvellous duo Elise Kellond-Knight and Clare Polkinghorne injured. But as I stated when he was appointed, there are bigger issues involved, such as: where are the women?
The players rightly say they simply want the ‘best coach’ for the role, but when they retire they’ll quickly realise that unless women are given an opportunity to develop, the ‘best coach’ will almost always be a male. It’s an unfair playing field and they’ll also suffer from the same issue.
There are fantastic female coaches who must be provided the opportunity to develop, as the men constantly are. In the women’s game, every male should be mentoring females as a matter of policy and, where two coaches are of similar ability and experience, the female should be chosen in women’s football. Positive discrimination is absolutely an imperative to achieve gender equality.
I might say that broadcasting is leading the way here. Well done to Optus Sport with a strong line-up of former female players, legends and hosts. And we, of course, have the legendary Joey Peters, smart and forthright, with Sarah Walsh on commentary and veteran sports journalist Tracey Holmes building on the work of the brilliant Lucy Zelic.
It’s extraordinary to say that after eleven years of a female professional league, not a single woman is deemed capable. Either it's inaccurate, or a major failure of the technical department. Either way, it needs to change.
If the development within women’s football is limited, any rhetoric about gender equality is hollow. And that is largely what the players are fighting for, including, of course, their stance to advocate on behalf of their profession worldwide regarding prize money.
Women are going to need to stand up and demand their rights, it will not be given to them and the Matildas are leading the way again, after their 2015 strike against FFA. They need to understand that this goes as much for female administrators and coaches as it does for them.
They and future generations deserve the opportunity to develop over a four-year period and perform at their best just as the game has a right to the benefits of a well prepared national male and female team, not one trying to overcome damaging, pre-tournament off-field change.
France 2019 was never only about this much-loved squad. It was about women’s football, the broader game and women’s sport. And we missed a great chance right in front of goal.