France 2019 – Women’s World Cup Review

Alan Stajcic sacked for no reason sees Australia predictably fail

13 July 2019

On the surface, a loss to Norway at the round of 16 stage via a penalty shootout after 1-1 draw doesn’t seem so bad. It could even be explained as simply being unlucky. In reality, the loss capped off a disastrous few months for the Matildas, as Australia’s women’s soccer team went from genuine World Cup contenders to an inept defensive unit and struggling to beat teams they ordinarily were dealing with quite easily.

The troubles started when Alan Stajcic was sacked as coach by Football Federation Australia in January for apparently overseeing a poor playing environment following a “Matildas Wellbeing Audit”. A quarter of a players in two confidential surveys – the type that are notoriously used to inflate personal grievances into systemic problems – said they felt under stress, while the FFA cited “workplace culture” and “player welfare” issues. Director Heather Reid was quoted in the media at the time saying “if people knew the actual facts about Mr Stajcic’s behaviour ‘they would be shocked’.”

This was all a lie as FFA wanted Stajcic out for reasons unclear. While CEO David Gallop maintains Stajcic was sacked to give Australia “the best chance to perform at the World Cup”, who did they hire as his replacement? No, not Jesus, who would be just about the only person who could be doing better with the Matildas at the time. They hired Ante Milicic! This was a coach getting his first serious senior gig! So you replace a proven performer, who had won the Tournament of Nations in 2017, beating USA, Japan and thrashing Brazil 6-1 along the way, and followed that in 2018 with wins over Brazil and Japan and a draw against the USA, with a newcomer.

France 2019 - Women's World Cup Review - Sam Kerr misses penalty shootout kick for Australia vs Norway
Sam Kerr despondent after missing her penalty in the shootout as Australia lose 4-1 to Norway. Image: fifa.com

It’s utterly bonkers the FFA can expect anyone to seriously believe them and, indeed, Heather Reid would later apologise and withdraw her statements “entirely and unconditionally”. She would say “I apologise unreservedly for the damage, distress and hurt that I have caused to Alen Stajcic” and “I apologise also for pain and suffering that I have caused to Mr Stajcic’s wife and two young children”, while the FFA confirmed “Stajcic’s contract was not terminated on the basis that he had breached his contract or had engaged in any misconduct”. Reid has been on indefinite leave from the FFA board due to health reasons since the crisis started, and that’s probably the reason she hasn’t been sacked yet. Gallop has announced he will leave in December – at least 12 months too late. He should have quit the moment the Matildas, and therefore he, failed.

Still we don’t know why Stajcic was really sacked. Either that survey, in this crazy “woke” era we live in, spooked the FFA into a ridiculous overreaction, or the FFA wanted him out for whatever reason and commissioned the survey hoping to get some dirt to use against Stajcic. Many high profile players were stunned at his sacking, and defended Stajcic publicly. Indeed, many didn’t even realise the survey would be used against Stajcic, and had they known, might not have been so cavalier in answering it. So if there is any legitimacy to player distress, it’s probably only a handful of younger snowflake peripheral players who think earning a spot in a national team should be easy.

No surprise it was a dreadful start for Australia in its opening game against Italy when Italy tore them apart, and were unlucky to only win 2-1. They constantly breached Australia’s high defending, while Australia lacked cohesion going forward, and wasted possession. This was a continuation of the pattern we’d already seen in preparation games against USA and Netherlands, in which Australia lost 5-2 and 3-0, with the latter result only one week before Australia’s opening World Cup match.

It must be noted that team pedigree for the women does not align with the men. Even though they were current European champions, this was Netherlands’ second ever World Cup, while Italy hadn’t qualified in 20 years. France is still developing, while Spain is a step behind. Germany is the only traditional European power to excel, when winning the World Cup in 2003 and 2007. Norway has been the traditional European power (won in 1995), with Sweden just below them, as these were the first European countries that empowered women to play. In recent years, the more traditional powers have started domestic leagues for women and are beginning to exert their force. South America is still way behind with only Brazil showing glimpses of ability to challenge the best teams. China led the way in Asian initially before Japan took over (won in 2011). Now Japan are off the boil. Of course, the best female team traditionally is the USA. Australia’s mostly hovered around the second tier of teams over the years, and only hit the top tier in recent years under Alan Stajcic. Of course, he was sacked before his true test, at this World Cup in France.

Australia’s second match was against Brazil, which they won 3-2 after falling behind 2-0 – again being caught high. A goal just before half time was able to provide confidence leading into the second half. Still, it must be tempered with the fact that Brazil had lost 9 games leading into this World Cup before beating lowly Jamaica in their opening Cup game, and only lost to Australia due to a dreadful own goal by Monica.

Jamaica would be Australia’s final game in the group, and again it proved a struggle, and they had to thank some poor Jamaican defending and a goal-keeping blunder in their 4-1 win. At 2-1, Jamaica actually looked ominous until Australia snuck a goal.

Against Norway in that round of 16 clash, Australia were caught high again when falling behind, before managing to equalise late through a fluky direct corner. Naturally the Australian media whinged about being dudded against Norway. A penalty was awarded to Australia for allegedly hand-ball in the box. Replays show the ball hit the Norwegian’s shoulder and it would have been a clear and obvious error had the penalty not been rescinded.

If Australia were dudded, it was sacking coach Alan Stajcic for no reason months before the World Cup started. The defense was diabolical ever ever since, conceding multiple goals in most matches, and were lucky to beat Brazil and survive the group. Let’s not fault the players either. This debacle was all administrative, as when you sack the coach for no reason just months before the World Cup starts, you can’t expect it to go without consequences. The Matildas were put in an unmanageable position to succeed.

So the World Cup that seemingly Australia was on the precipice of achieving their best ever result, if not winning, ended in a performance and result well below ability and expectation. Sacking Stajcic was never about giving the team the best possible chance to perform, it was an exercise in vanity and ego, and likely to distract from the FFA’s own flaws. Let’s note the men’s team is at their lowest ebb in decades and the youth teams often fail to qualify for World Cups and Olympics, and now we have the women’s team go backwards. In a way, the Matildas’ failure at France 2019 is justice for the treachery of the FFA. Such selfish and despicable actions should never be rewarded.

Finally…

Overall, it was a great World Cup. USA won for the second time in a row and the fourth time overall, and showed their class throughout and handled Netherlands quite comfortably in the final for their 2-0 win. Most notable from the tournament is the Europeans have really developed and dominated, with the quarter finals featuring seven of them: Norway, England, France, Italy, Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. The standard has improved too, notably with the goal-keepers. In the early days of women’s football they were an embarrassment.

It’s a shame the American success wasn’t as unifying as it could be due to Megan Rapinoe’s unsavoury antics, notably kneeling during the anthem in 2016, the general criticism of her country, and the equal pay dispute between men and women. Curiously, that kneeling event was when Rapinoe started on the bench. She’d dare not do it on the field – restricted at the World Cup to simply not singing – and no doubt was told at the time she’d be booted off the team if there’s a repeat episode. After all, this is the USA national team. It represents the country and its people. If you don’t respect that, get out. If she was really passionate about diversity, she’d not be playing soccer anyway. One look at the American team and it looks more whiter than the Republican Party and that many come from privileged backgrounds. As for equal pay, she can start with all players in her own team and domestic competition earning the same. They do the same work, the same training, so why not? No doubt she’ll respond market forces and her value dictate her higher salary. Bingo. Same goes when trying to compare a Rapinoe to a Ronaldo, or the women’s World Cup to the men’s.

The Video Assistant Referee was highly visible in this World Cup, and while there was some minor controversy about decisions, this was more due to FIFA’s stricter guidelines on handballs and trips regarding penalties, than any wrong decisions made. Overall, it worked. Probably the area to rethink is offsides let go, and often only called once the player offside eventually touches the ball. This can causes players, notably defenders, run for the ball for no reason. Personally, the line referee needs to signal of a potential offside, especially an obvious one, so the players don’t waste their energy. If it’s not obvious, you let the game go and only check if a goal is scored, as is has become practice now. Ensuring goal-keepers don’t leave their line before a penalty kick is taken is another great use of VAR. It’s been an area of cheating for decades in the game, and it should have been long stamped out. Bravo to FIFA for actually doing good things for the game, and to the women for an excellent tournament.

Results

Group

Australia 1 – Kerr 22′
Italy 2 – Bonansea 56′, 90+5′

Australia 3 – Foord 45+1′, Logarzo 58′, Monica 66′ (OG)
Brazil 2 – Marta 27′ (PK), Cristiane 38′

Jamaica 1 – Solaun 49′
Australia 4 – Kerr 11′, 42′, 69′, 83′

Round of 16

Norway 1 – Herlovsen 31′
Australia 1 – Kellond-Knight 83′
(Norway won 4-1 on penalties)

Socceroo Realm – Top 5 Moments of 2015

01 January 2016

Since the completion of the Asian Cup in January, it’s been a very quiet year for the Socceroo Realm. While the Women’s World Cup provided a tournament highlight mid-year, the U20 and U17 Men’s World Cups practically went unnoticed. The U20 for a reason: Australia didn’t even qualify. The U17s had an evolving problem.

During the dark days, during Australia’s time in Oceania, youth tournaments were a much needed solace for fans starved of international action. Otherwise, it was two serious World Cup qualifying games every four years. Nowadays, in Asia, the Socceroos are in action far, far more, to the point I barely watched 10 minutes of the U17 World Cup in Chile. I’d feel embarrassed if I was alone, that the tournament was well hyped and I simply ignored. I wasn’t alone. Even SBS couldn’t be bothered showing an evening’s highlight package. I had to check right now that Nigeria beat Mali in the final, while Serbia beat Brazil to win the U20 World Cup that was held in New Zealand.

Socceroo Realm - Australian Soccer / Football

1) Australia wins the Asian Cup

Easily the top moment of this year. It was a brilliant tournament, with a thrilling final and, obviously, a great result. More than that, it raised the profile of coach Ange Postecoglou into almost a messiah. We await for him to qualify the Socceroos for Russia 2018 and do much better than the three losses suffered at Brazil 2014.

2) The Women’s World Cup

Expanded to 24 teams and held in Canada, it proved a thrilling tournament. Not least that the Matildas did so well, with a memorable win over Brazil in the 1/8 final, thanks to a late goal by Kyah Simon. Even though they failed to inspire when losing the quarter final to Japan, the tournament itself became more exciting with pulsating knockout games and a rampant USA demolishing Japan in the final after Carli Lloyd scored a hat-trick in the first 16 minutes.

3) Jordan beating Australia in World Cup qualifying… again

Australia went into Asia for competition. We should hope it is tough, and demand it so, and not throw a tantrum and say “we should be beating these teams”. No, we should not be beating these teams. It’s football. The beauty of the game is that anything can happen. Ironically, Jordan’s win wasn’t really a case of “anything can happen”, since they won the last time when the two countries played in Amman. The fascinating aspect of this match and watching our fears materialised right before our eyes. Here’s another nugget to chew on: if we don’t miss qualifying for the occasional World Cup, then our role in Asia is failing. We are there to be mutually beneficial, which means to help improve the standard in Asia, which in turns forces Australia to improve.

4) Australia losing to Korea at the Asian Cup

A gripping match, even for a group game, that made the rematch in the final all the more exciting. Excuses did pour that Australia could have, should have, would have won. Nag, nag, nag. We Australians really must lose this arrogance of superiority, at least when it comes to football. Ultimately, losing probably helped by removing any complacency.

5) Australia beating China at the Asian Cup

With one billion Chinese watching, this quarter final was highly anticipated. Sadly for the Chinese, Australia put on a clinical display, which included a spectacular overhead goal by Tim Cahill.

Honourable Mention…

Even though the Socceroo Realm doesn’t rate “friendly” international matches, coach Ange Postecoglou rated the 2-2 draw in Germany in March as his highlight of the year: “Being champions of your region is one thing but we wanted to gain respect beyond that. It wasn’t that we got a draw, it was the manner that we got it. We played the world champions on their home soil and took the game to them. We scored two goals, could have had a couple more and didn’t take a backwards step. It gave the players a real belief that the way we play our football and our philosophy would serve us well as we build as a team, and I got a lot of satisfaction from seeing the belief flow into the players and the staff.”

It was a good result. Feelings of dread set in once Australia conceded after only 17 minutes. Big credit to the team that they didn’t fold, instead taking the lead after goals on 40 and 50 minutes, and only conceding the equaliser in the last 10 minutes.

2016

The final round robin of World Cup qualifying awaits, with Australia almost certainly through to that. It’s expanded to six teams per group, so potentially will be tougher than ever. Mid-year we have my other passion outside of the Socceroos: the Olympics! Let’s hope Australia qualify for that. Already there are problems with the qualifying tournament being held outside FIFA international dates, so the Olyroos is without many of its better players. As fans, we ask that it’s taken seriously, not like the disaster of four years ago when the team couldn’t even score a goal in the six matches of its final group phase.

Happy New Year!

Full site: socceroorealm.com

Canada 2015 – Women’s World Cup – Review of Australia / Matildas

28 June 2015

Disappointing end to a promising campaign

After escaping the so-called “group of death”, and then beating Brazil in the round of 16 to record their first knock-out match win ever, the Matildas succumbed to World Champions Japan 1-0 in the quarter final. Even with 5 days break compared to 3 for Japan, the Matildas seemed lethargic from the start and unable to impose their game. While commentators suggested fatigue was the problem, it seemed more like a combination of Japan being too good and Australia possibly pacing the game in case of extra time. The “hot weather”, which was 26 at the start of the game and forecast to reach 31, should not have been a problem. The artificial pitch, supposedly 50 degrees in such conditions, did not hamper the players’ post match commiseration, as they lay sprawled all over it in sadness. Pacing the knockout games seemed to be a trend at the men’s World Cup in Brazil last year, and maybe it’s crept in here too. It’s a good strategy, as long as you’re not sucker-punched near the end of regulation time.

Other than the early phase of the second half, Australia were shut out of the game, and ultimately hit with a sucker punch. Their only shots were speculative from range or from the very rare Japanese mistakes. While 8 corners to zero and a 60% possession rate are suggestive of the dominance, the reality of the dominance is that Japan’s high-pressing strategy saw Australia’s attempt to play its possession game collapse. It only seemed a matter of time that Japan would capitalise on a mistake or convert a corner, and that proved exactly true when a loose pass out of defence was picked off. After the shot was blocked, the resulting corner on 87 minutes was scrambled into the net. Game over against a Japanese team that all teams have found difficult to crack. Ignoring the bad goal-keeping error in the R16 final against the Netherlands, Japan have only conceded one goal all tournament.

Australia’s best performance of the tournament came against Brazil in the R16 final. They managed to shut down the dangerous Brazil while creating good opportunities for themselves. The winning goal came on the 64th minute by the fabulous Kyah Simon, who scored both goals in the pivotal game against Nigeria that virtually sealed Australia’s place in the second round, to leave the Brazilians shattered. It was marvellous scenes for both the jubilation of the Matildas and tears of the often arrogant and conceited Brazilians.

This World Cup had been expanded to 24 nations from 16, meaning the four best third-place teams from the six groups would also progress and 3 points is quite often to progress. Australia drew 1-1 with Sweden in their final group match to hold second place, while Sweden’s three draws were enough for them to progress in third. USA, which had difficulties against Australia and Sweden, won the group with 7 points. Against the USA, Australia matched them for the first 60 minutes, entering half time at 1-1, before class told in the end and USA ran out 3-1 winners.

Quotes – Norio Sasaki, Japan’s coach

Even if we didn’t get a goal within 90 minutes, I felt we would get it inside 120 minutes. The game-plan was executed very well. We recognise the growth of Australia in this World Cup and my team will take confidence from this and we can build with future success (at the tournament). Also the solutions we came up for this match worked very well, and this also gives us confidence. We will fight hard in the semi-final being mindful of the people supporting us back in Japan.

Quotes – Alen Stajcic, Australia’s coach

Clearly the better team won, even though I thought it evened out a bit after the first 20 minutes. Japan were a lot more composed over the full 90 minutes. We didn’t set out to play any differently, but we just spent a lot of energy in the first 20 minutes chasing the game. Most of our players are young, and it is a heartbreaking moment for them, but sometimes you learn from these experiences. We don’t want to compete with the best, we want to beat the best, so now it is a case of taking further steps. There is a lot of room for growth moving forward.


The Women’s Game

Watching these tournaments since Sweden 1995, when just 12 teams participated and Australia lost all 3 games, the growth in skill has been phenomenal. The key growth area is the goal-keepers, who bordered on embarrassing even until the last World Cup in Germany. So many long shots would be scored as the goalies’ poor athleticism would preclude them from reaching shots that seemed in very simple reach of the men. Even allowing for women being less powerful in the leap and generally shorter, the attempts to save looked terrible, or the women would be left flat-footed. That’s all changed for Canada 2015 with notably far few shots from range being scored, and that’s not from the lack of trying. Australia’s Lydia Williams notably pulled off several world class saves, especially against Brazil, and she’s only 175cm tall. Defending is also tighter in general, especially the lack of one-on-ones. It’s only the African and Latin American teams, who are quite a bit off the pace, that you still see some of this calamity. Also the expansion to 24 teams did bring a few weaker teams in, notably Ivory Coast and Ecuador, both of whom conceded 10 goals in a match.

The general attraction of the women’s game – the more open play and more shots on goal – that’s still there. That should remain a part of the fabric of the game given women’s weakness (or strength!) of being naturally not quite as strong or fast as the men. So, too, should the paucity of diving, cheating and time-wasting that often blights the men’s game. Let’s hope this difference is a result of women having more integrity rather than being “less professional” than the men so that it never enters the women’s game. This overall increase in action and flow meant that the Australia/Japan QF was probably the only match that approached the banality of a stalemate in the men’s game. If the women keep improving, there’s no reason why they cannot provide a product that’s as compelling to watch as the men’s. In tennis and basketball, connoisseurs of those sports (including myself) appreciate the more technical and nuance nature of the female versions. Football, with the rules unchanged for the woman, can certainly reach this level.

Of course, the other attraction of the women’s game is the women themselves. Let’s be realistic and resist accusations of sexism, women have for generations enjoyed watching men play for reasons more than just watching a football match, so why not vice versa? Thankfully the women are not treated as sex objects, as play in the same uniforms as the men, not any stupid bodysuits to artificially “sex up” the game, like Australian basketball did or once Sepp Blatter notoriously suggested that football do. Kyah Simon has the prettiest eyes and a winning smile that’s as lethal as her boot, and is certainly my favourite of the Australian team, while any player with a long ponytail looks so elegant. Japan’s Rumi Utsugi, who was integral in converting the winning corner, is one notable, as too almost the entire starting eleven of the Netherlands. USA still has the glamorous Hope Solo, who’s been a long time favourite.

It’s good to see different teams dominate at world level. In the early days the trio of USA, Norway and China were the most dominant. While Norway and China have slid a little, the USA have reached the semi final of every single World Cup. Japan has taken over as Asia’s most dominant team, while Germany has supplanted Norway. Traditional footballing countries are now improving thanks to their domestic leagues, notably England and France, and this was the first ever World Cup for Spain, Netherlands and Switzerland. Latin America is poor (except for Brazil) and Africa is far behind. Canada is the other strong member in the Americas, while Asia saw Thailand qualify to reinforce the power of the east. New Zealand is competitive for Oceania.


Offsides

Give the female assistant referees a gig at the men’s events! Never before have I see a virtual faultless display off refereeing the offside law. Most particular the “favour the attacker” edict in that, yes, in every line-ball case, the referees favoured the attackers! Maybe only once I’ve seen an obvious offside allowed, and even then we’re still talking reasonably close. More importantly, I don’t recall seeing a wrong offside called. Those are the true bane of the sport, because they deny goals and goal chances. The spirit of the law is being refereed perfectly at this World Cup. Whatever it is, better eyesight, reinforcement of the edict, or females having a better empathy for the game, it’s been wonderful. The outfield refereeing has also been great. If there’s an area that the women have clearly surpassed the men, it’s the referees.


Equality

The big talking point in the media has been the discrepancy of pay between the men and women. While the men get $6000 per match at their World Cup, the women get $500 at theirs. Obviously market forces are involved here, with the men generating far more revenue. They also get a slice of the prize-money, which the women also do. While you could say double the match payment to $1000, there will still be calls of inequality unless it’s even. Just look at Grand Slam tennis where even at less than 5% difference in recent years, the women were still howling until it was equal. That’s even despite the fact their matches are only 60% as long as the men, they attract less crowds and the depth in their fields is much weaker. Given the match payments are a relatively small cost in the overall expense of sending a team to a World Cup, the FFA should probably just make it equal. As for prize-money split, that percentage should also be equal. Unfortunately, until the women’s game generates enough revenue to pay the massive prize-money on offer at a men’s World Cup, that means total dollars from prize-money will remain low compared to the men.

The important thing with any issue of equality is to see it progressing. It was only 20 years ago that the men were striking at their pathetic pay, which was in the realm of a few hundred dollars like the women now. Remember World Series Cricket in the 70s? That was all about pay, particularly revenue coming into the game that wasn’t being spread to the players. Cricket has just recently put their women on contract, something that the FFA has emulated. The advantage with the cricket model is that, yes, you do control your players, so your national team is never compromised. Unfortunately that’s created a problem that the women are then precluded to play overseas, where they could earn much more money than the local W-League. Football is not cricket, with fundamentally different structures at international level. Whereas cricket is a pseudo club team almost permanently on international tour, football is representative and an adjunct to domestic club competitions. For the short-term sacrifice to the improvement of the Matildas that the contract system seems to have made for this World Cup, it would better to disband the contracts, use that money to pay higher wages in the W-League, and be more accommodating to any player that does want to go overseas. After all, if it’s about equality, our female warriors should be treated equally to our male ones.

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