Soccer

The dumping of Matildas coach Alen Stajcic has polarised Australia’s soccer community, with claims of everything from a psychological damaging team culture to a manipulative ‘lesbian mafia’. By Kate O’Halloran.

The sacking of Matildas head coach Alen Stajcic

Former Matildas head coach Alen Stajcic.
Credit: Andrew Matthews / PA Wire

When David Gallop, chief executive of Football Federation Australia, called a press conference last Saturday to announce the immediate sacking of Matildas head coach Alen Stajcic, the decision was both a bombshell and a confirmation of the rumours that had started to leak to the media just a day earlier.

Initial whispers of major troubles surrounding one of Australia’s most beloved teams allegedly came from Stajcic himself, after he was first brought in by Gallop on the Friday to discuss the findings of two confidential reviews into organisational culture – one by Football Federation Australia (FFA) and the players’ union (PFA) and the second by FFA and Our Watch (the national body for the prevention of violence against women). The Saturday axing operated in part as a prelude to a scheduled meeting on Monday with the Matildas team, Sport Australia, the PFA and a management company to work on a structured leadership program, while it also sought to quash increasingly angry murmurs from soccer fans and journalists on Twitter – many claiming Stajcic had not been afforded “due process”.

In the week since rumours, misinformation and leaks have dominated the press. Throughout, the FFA – despite holding two media conferences – has provided minimal detail to explain why Stajcic is gone just five months out from the Matildas’ tilt at the World Cup.

The silence has raised public ire but is understandable, at least from a legal perspective, as there is the possibility of Stajcic suing for defamation. The terms of Stajcic’s employment contract are confidential and contained a “no cause” termination clause. Stajcic received a severance package. He is also alleged to have threatened legal action in the wake of his departure, a risk that would further limit the FFA’s willingness to come out publicly with the reasons behind his sacking.

That has not, of course, stopped leaks to the press, allegedly both from Stajcic’s camp and, less frequently, from other interested parties keen to turn the tide of public and media opinion. Indeed, to date, media reporting has arguably been dominated by those angry about his dismissal, contributing to an ever-more polarised Australian soccer community grappling with alternative “versions” of the truth.

The Saturday Paper can report a number of insights gained from sources within FFA. These include allegations that Stajcic presided over a toxic and dysfunctional culture within the national women’s team set-up and that there were high levels of self-reported psychological distress among players and staff. According to the ABC, a quarter of all players reported suffering psychological distress in the Matildas Wellbeing Audit conducted jointly by the players’ union and FFA.

Among other issues reported in the press, there was a culture of homophobia within the Matildas leadership, described by Michael Lynch for The Age as a tendency for staff to use “flippant” homophobic remarks. Noting a principal belief that homophobic remarks are never “flippant” but have serious consequences for emotional and psychological wellbeing, such alleged behaviour was deemed to constitute an unacceptable and unsafe work environment.

A number of sources suggest a homophobic culture had spread within the organisation more broadly, causing fault lines between two predominant factions: those who supported the national coach and those referred to openly as the “lesbian mafia”. The term “lesbian mafia” – with its connotations of organised corruption and underhanded deals – is alleged to have referred to those women working within Australian soccer who were apparently intent on Stajcic’s removal because they wanted to appoint a woman to the Matildas’ top job.

Coincidentally, Bonita Mersiades, writing for Football Today this week, singled out this faction as responsible for the “perfect storm” that led to Stajcic’s removal. Those named by Mersiades were FFA deputy chair Heather Reid, cited as having a “long-time commitment” to appointing women to key positions; FIFA committee member Moya Dodd, reportedly upset with Stajcic for “undermining” former Matildas coach Hesterine de Reus; and head of women’s football Emma Highwood, for having a “strong desire for a woman coach of the Matildas”.

Among other reported issues with the Matildas leadership was a culture of “fat-shaming” or “body shaming” – an allegation repeated in Nine publications, the ABC and The Australian. Sources within FFA told The Saturday Paper this culture was not only characteristic of the Matildas’ national team, but also the under-20s team and Emerging Matildas, overseen by Matildas assistant coach Gary van Egmond. Purportedly, some staff working in the national team set-up were worried that this culture would contribute to a range of psychological issues associated with eating disorders.

As Tracey Holmes has reported, the Matildas Wellbeing Audit also revealed players affected by the national team culture were afraid to speak out and seek support, in the belief this would be held against them. In addition, according to the ABC, fewer than 20 per cent of players said the team environment was conducive to making them better players or people. Various media reports have added that intimidation and bullying was common when players or staff spoke up, and that players feared they would be left out of the national side as a result. Some players had also reported feeling “spat out” of the system after false assurances by Stajcic about their place in the national team.

Contrary to some media reporting – and as noted by Lucy Zelić on SBS’s The World Game – Stajcic is said to have been given the chance to respond to the allegations. Prior to last Friday’s FFA board meeting, Stajcic had met Gallop in an effort by the chief executive to have the coach outline a way forward. However, it is understood Stajcic wasn’t able to outline such a vision. It is believed this solidified Gallop’s belief that FFA was faced with an “increasingly deteriorating situation” and that Stajcic’s termination – later endorsed by the board – was one part of a larger process required to rectify issues relating to workplace culture.

To note that the situation had deteriorated, however, is not to suggest that this is not a longstanding issue within the Matildas or the organisation more broadly. “This is a situation that has been brewing for some time,” reported Fox Sports journalist Anna Harrington, who’s long been involved in women’s soccer. The good fortune of the Matildas on the playing field, she added, may have “papered over the cracks of a toxic environment that had produced long-running discontent”.

Should that be the case, serious questions remain as to who knew about the cultural problems within Australian soccer, and who was culpable or complicit. While prominent journalists such as The Australian’s chief soccer writer, Ray Gatt, have pointed the finger at Emma Highwood, for example, it is the head of national performance, Luke Casserly, who has ultimate oversight of the national team environments. Casserly, if he knew about the alleged toxic culture, chose to do nothing, or acted ineffectively.

It is easy to see the parallels with the cultural problems of the Australian men’s cricket team, which required its own external review – conducted by the Ethics Centre – and revealed deep-seated issues that had been overlooked or ignored due to a “win at all costs” mentality. In that regard, a favourable assessment of FFA’s actions – carried out by a newly elected board just over two months into its term – would see this as an attempt to rectify endemic cultural issues to ensure the safety and wellbeing of staff and players. The emphatic response to the findings of the Our Watch review, moreover, suggests a code getting serious about its stated commitment to gender equality and other forms of social justice, including ending discrimination against the LGBTQIA community.

However, as it stands, communication from FFA has been poor to unhelpful, missing a key opportunity to justify what externally appeared to be a drastic action. Indeed, airwaves, social media feeds and newspapers have instead been dominated by complaints from the Women’s Council (for a perceived lack of consultation from FFA), the coaches’ association (for a perceived lack of procedural fairness for Stajcic) and, perhaps most damagingly, the majority of Matildas players, until a statement was released on January 22 saying they simply wanted to “stay focused on our common goal, which remains winning the World Cup 2019”.

According to sources, the support of the players is in some cases genuine and, for others, the result of not wanting to be seen as unsupportive of their long-term coach. This again raises serious questions about what needs to change within the elite team culture for players to feel comfortable being honest about their experiences without fearing retribution.

If one thing is certain it is that the Matildas’ interim coach – who will be appointed to preside over the Cup of Nations (with camp starting in February) as well as the World Cup – will have a challenging time refreshing the playing group and rebuilding some of the trust that, if not broken by an existing culture, may now be broken by an increasingly messy fallout.

This week’s highlights…

• Cycling: Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race

Saturday and Sunday, Geelong, Barwon Heads, Torquay

• Cricket: WBBL final – Sydney Sixers and Brisbane Heat

Saturday, 10.10am (AEDT), Drummoyne Oval, Sydney

• Tennis: Australian Open women’s and men’s finals

Saturday 7.30pm, Sunday 7pm (AEDT), Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Park

Soccer: A-League – Melbourne Victory v Sydney FC

Saturday, 7.50pm (AEDT), AAMI Park, Melbourne

Basketball: NBL – Adelaide 36ers v Melbourne United

Monday, 7.20pm (ACDT), Titanium Security Arena, Adelaide

• Cricket: Australia v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, day 1

Friday, 10.30am (AEDT), Manuka Oval, Canberra

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 26, 2019 as "Faults in Matildas". Subscribe here.

Kate O’Halloran
is a freelance sports journalist.