Exclusive

The ugly side of women's football

0:00

Former international footballer Ciara McCormack, who trained under former Matildas coach Alen Stajcic at Sydney FC, shares her powerful insights on his sacking and issues in the women's game.

In 2010 I ended my career overseas in Norway, exhausted after a year of dealing with a painful ankle injury along with experiencing two different clubs go bankrupt, and the personal financial fallout that came with that.

So I decided at the age of 31 that it was time to start pursuing something more financially stable and moved back to the US to start pursuing some business opportunities and start getting a grip on life after soccer. I still played pick up every day during the year and in the summers in the semi-pro leagues in the US and Canada.

Unfortunately for me, in the summer of 2012 I managed to get one of the more horrific foot injuries, a Lisfranc, which essentially knocked me out of playing for almost a year.

As a female player, I spent all of my 20's playing abroad. I had played in Denmark, and was a part of a UEFA Champions League Final team in my first season as a pro, and had also played in Norway, and for the Republic of Ireland (where my parents are from and where I have a passport) after a stint training in residency as a guest player for my native Canada.

But at age 33, and with a busted foot, I knew in my head that there was still one place and one league I had always wanted to play in. One final thing to check off my soccer playing bucket list.

So I set the silent goal of playing in Australia's W-League, and spent a good part of 2013 training hard without telling anyone, rehabbing a messed up foot, with that end goal in mind.

It wasn't an easy target by any means, as each W-League team only had three international spots, and with it being the off-season for the American league and many top European leagues, positions were tough to come by.

I had messaged a load of clubs, and was ecstatic when Adelaide United, in South Australia, said that they would sign me.

McCormack
Getty Images

However, it all came to a screeching halt two weeks before I was set to make the move when the club informed me they had signed somebody else instead.

I had already connected with Melissa "Bubs" Barbieri, a goalkeeper for Australia's national team at the time, and someone I had met when I had been back to visit my friends at my old club in Denmark.

Barbieri was also supposed to be my teammate in Adelaide. When she checked in a couple of days after I had been dropped, I told her with much embarrassment that the move to the Reds had abruptly fallen through.

In one of the biggest acts of kindness I received in my career, 'Bubs' called every club head coach in the league to get me a trial at a W-League side.

Within a day, she messaged me back saying that she had spoken to Alen Stajcic, the head coach of Sydney FC.

He said that I could come tryout with them, no promises.

So after coordinating a couch that I could sleep on with an old friend I had played with in Norway who now lived in Sydney, I hopped a plane to Australia.

I started a two week tryout with Sydney FC, who had won the league the year before, and was heading to the Club World Championships in Japan a month after I arrived. They were littered with some of the current top players in women's football, such as Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord as well as England striker Jodie Taylor. 

I was 34, coming off a serious foot injury, and hadn't played at the top level in a couple of years.

Not intimidating in the slightest.

One last chance

At my ripe old age I had experienced many, many soccer environments and coaches. Many were good people but some were assholes.

My familiarity with football clubs meant I could give a character assessment of a coach pretty quickly based on how a player was treated in these sorts of circumstances.

Being a no-name tryout player that the coach owed no favours or kindness towards, intensified this character litmus test even further.

And so I, the no-name player, landed at Sydney FC's practice, with a little bit of trepidation in terms of how it was going to go.

Sydney FC's head coach, Alen Stajcic, or 'Staj', as everyone called him, was professional, straightforward, inclusive, and kind to me as a person.

You remember things like that clearly in vulnerable circumstances.

On the field, he was a fantastic coach. Training sessions were phenomenal and enjoyable, and you could see the respect and the loyalty that he got from all the players he worked with at Sydney FC.

He was very demanding, but it was obvious that he brought the best out of every player. As female players whose basic wish is just a professional environment to grow and become better in, you could see them respond in a positive way. Sydney FC, in his tenure, was a perennial power in the league, including that year because of his leadership on and off the field.

After a couple weeks of training with them, Staj ended up offering me a spot on the team. But after realizing pretty quickly (based on the incredible talent at Sydney FC) that I wouldn't play much, juxtaposed with getting a good financial offer from the Newcastle Jets, a team that was desperate for defenders and experience, I made the decision to move two hours north to Newcastle and take that opportunity instead.

Again Staj was kind, understanding and classy when I told him that Newcastle was just a better fit for what I was looking for, and he wished me the best of luck.

I thanked him for one of my best soccer experiences, training under him with those incredible players, for those couple of weeks that I was with Sydney FC.

Why Stajcic’s sacking caught my eye

Because of this, when I heard the other day that he was sacked suddenly from his position as the head coach of the Australian women's national team, it caught my eye and my interest.

This being despite the fact that I've pretty actively separated myself from the elite female soccer world, joking, but kind of being serious with my non-soccer playing friends, that I have PTSD from my career.

Stajcic
AAP

Mostly because this situation with Staj and the mistreatment of people in general is the kind of messed up shit that happened often, and that I just don't miss from the soccer bubble anymore.

When I heard the circumstances of his departure as the head coach for Australia five months before the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup it caught my eye further as I've heard this story before.

The sudden nature and hazy details that spoke vaguely of player surveys and a toxic environment was countered by almost the entire team writing words of shock and support on Twitter - directly at odds with the narrative that FFA was putting out to the public.

Journalists referring cryptically to a situation that they couldn't quite reveal but that supported the Australian federation's side.

Everyone wondering what the truth of the situation is.

In these kind of situations I've seen two different scenarios, both solved pretty quickly with transparency, which is something that is lacking far too often in the women's game.

The two possible reasons Stajcic got sacked

From what I have seen and experienced in my career there are two potential scenarios which could be at play with this situation in Australia, and based on my experiences, I'll chip my own two cents and experiences in here:

Scenario one – Player safety

With no concrete reason given in the Stajcic case, and only a reference to "confidential player surveys" and an "investigation" and findings that included a "toxic environment," - if things were so bad then absolutely the federation needs to take action, and more importantly, be transparent about it.

But where is the accountability from those in charge at the federation that they would be so asleep at the wheel to have to take such drastic action so close to a major event, if this was in fact the case?

In Canada, during my playing career, three weeks before a youth World Cup, the head coach of the youth national team "mutually parted ways" with the Canadian Soccer Association. This was immediately after many players, including myself, were interviewed about his conduct, with some fairly serious allegations involving underage players floating around.

We were told that the mediator who interviewed us was hired by the Canadian Soccer Association and the club that he was also the head coach of. Few details were given to the public, as in this situation, and the governing body got away with sweeping the whole thing under the rug. The media did little to dig and the departure of the coach was framed publicly as a "mutual decision," with zero reference given to the extensive interviews that many of us players were subjected to. His leaving of the post coming days after the interviews wrapped up.

The lack of neutral investigators (aka not paid for by the CSA or his club and thus having their interest as their number one concern) and the fear in the young players of speaking the truth and the potential of saying the wrong thing and having it cost them their youth World Cup opportunity, is something I will always be scarred by. This method of "truth seeking" (which was more to see if the smoke led to fire and how big the fire was and if and how fast they needed to run from it) ultimately left the entire truth of what had gone on buried.

This coach was not banned from the game or investigated further by parties outside of the federation (although us players were told he wouldn't coach again to calm and quiet the situation in the immediate aftermath). Because of this secrecy surrounding the situation, and the lack of formal follow up to the situation, he is back coaching young female players.

From that standpoint, federations should not be allowed to vaguely frame these situations. If player safety is compromised in any situation that deems a coach being let go from teams, then absolutely, it needs to be fully and transparently investigated, reported on, and followed up on, and there should be legal mandates to do so.

There should be formal protocols and repercussions for future coaching opportunities if player safety is compromised in any way.

This type of transparent full investigation also gives the coaches the chance, if they didn't do something, to be fully exonerated by a neutral party. If innocent, they deserve to have their name cleared in the public space that they are being judged and gossiped in, that will affect their reputation and future opportunities.

A lack of transparency in these situations benefits no one.

Players have the right to a safe environment.

Coaches have the right if they did nothing wrong to have their reputations left intact.

Federations should not be allowed to play God in these situations when the repercussions for everyone are so serious.

Matildas
AAP

Scenario two - federation bullies

On the other hand, I also witnessed another situation in Canada where a national team coach, because they started to ruffle feathers of the governing body and demand better for the female players, was actively run out by the federation.

From my experience, like any power and money-led organisation, federations want puppets for coaches or at the very least people that play the political game and leave the federation's own power, ego and control intact. These organisations have the ability to destroy the careers of people who don't beat to their drum and can hide behind the veil of a lack of transparency to do so.

In this second situation I witnessed the aftermath of this national team coach and their staff, which a good friend was a part of - actively calling out the CSA behind the scenes for their lack of financial transparency and other transgressions. They suddenly and brutally had the rug pulled out from under them and lost their coaching positions, never to get another major job again.

It is beyond f**ked up to destroy great people and coaches, yet without transparency and accountability it happens far too often.

Federations should have some basic tenets of accountability and transparency to keep their power and ego in check and not be allowed to destroy people's careers if they feel their own power being threatened.

This could very well be the scenario with Stajcic, someone who has been heralded by the players and fans alike for pushing the women's game forward in Australia, but without a fully transparent and neutral investigation, we will never know.

So where does a person go to find the truth?

In these situations, from my experience, the media and not even the players can be trusted because in these high stakes situations it is every man for themselves at the end of the day.

What are the roles then of media and players in these situations as an avenue for truth?

The Media

Learning about the role of the media is kind of like learning that doctors don't always have your best interests at heart or that Santa Claus doesn't exist.

We're raised to believe that the media are the truth seekers and truth tellers, but in reality their career gets ahead if they are in with the right people, and most media won't bite the hand that feeds them. Federations hold a lot of clout and power, and most media will twist and taint story lines, or not report at all, to be able to maintain their own position within the hierarchy.

When I started to read on Twitter of Australian journalists throwing out a narrative supporting the federation, but not quite being able to say the why's, this gave me deja vu to other situations I've seen in the past, where the federation wants to control the narrative and the media is all too happy to stay on the right side of the powers that be.

From my experience, the truth is not so easy to find when paychecks are involved.

Just ask the guys at Fox and CNN in the US, how and why the same stories can get spun in such different manners.

The Players:

At the end of the day, part of my PTSD of being a player in elite women's soccer, is how goddamn fearful everyone was/is of rocking the boat and losing opportunities because of it.

As a player you have no power.

And with no power, there is little opportunity for a voice or truth.

It's the sad reality, and one I don't miss from that world at all.

McCormack
Getty Images

As someone who had both the benefit of a passport to play for another country and little tolerance for authority figures that bullied (and a lack of fear in standing up to them), I usually always found myself in my own career in Canada taking the bullets for standing up and saying something in the many rotten situations we found ourselves in.

I still feel triggered hearing about athletes in other sports who are bullied and vulnerable in their environments and that don't/didn't have a voice and had shitty things happen to them, because it is/was the reality for most of us that got to the top level. This goes for many coaches as well.

Look no farther than the case of Leni Kaurin - a national team player from Norway in 2014 who had her entire team (my old club and many old teammates) sign a letter of support for the coach who admitted to sexually harassing her, and who benched her when she made clear her lack of interest in him romantically.

She lost her club contract when she spoke up about it and eventually quit soccer and her national team career in the aftermath.

The coach kept his job and the players who signed the letter in support of him kept their playing contracts.

This situation gives an ugly glimpse of how people in the game often acquiesce to the powers that be in fear of losing their own opportunities, at the expense of the truth and even well-being of the people around them.

Because of this, to see the players tweet anything about Staj is significant because the federation does have a say in who makes teams. It is telling that so many of them had the courage to tweet support of him publicly.

What needs to happen

That all being said, these are government funded organisations and therefore should be forced to publicly address these situations and adhere to general rules of the societies they function within.

Players need and deserve protection.

Coaches need and deserve protection.

Both have given their lives to the sport and their craft, and both deserve transparency and a full investigation of the truth in these kinds of situations.

It should no longer be allowed or good enough anywhere for these kind of circumstances to be spoken of in cryptic tones by these federations, and such important decisions to be pushed through with little explanation. Full transparency should be demanded by FIFA, by governments, by the organisations themselves and the high values they supposedly stand for.

Otherwise this f**ked up world of elite women's soccer will continue, at the benefit of few, and the detriment of many.

In this situation, in my opinion Alen Stajcic and the Matilda players deserve better.

I can only go by my own experience, but I have only good things to say about how I experienced his professionalism on and off the field. To have his national team coaching career end so suddenly in a cloud of unsubstantiated innuendo seems absolutely inappropriate and unfair.

With so much human carnage, one has to ask themselves, if players and coaches can't have a healthy and safe environment to thrive in as a basic tenet of their participation, do World Cups and Olympics really matter?

I don't miss this f**ked up side of the elite women's soccer world whatsoever.

Players and coaches within it deserve better.