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)

Sochi 2014 – Champs, Chumps and Putin

16 March 2014

The story of Australia’s mixed effort and Vladimir Putin playing the world as fools

After international football, the Olympics are the Socceroo Realm’s other great passion. That’s because, like football, the prestige of winning and representing your country is so huge. While much of the excitement of gold medals by Australia is diminished in the recent 15 years because Australia wins so many, the individual stories of specific triumphs still resonate. Indeed, after Australia’s appalling start to London, the sailors getting the nation’s first gold, and then Sally Pearson and Anna Meares adding to it not long after, were really moments to savour.

Given that Australia is a minor player, the Winter Games are a different beast. For the purity of sport, that actually translates quite well because one of the big criticisms of the summer Games is that focus is so nationalistic. You don’t see athletes from other nations, or even experience entire slabs of a sporting event, because the broadcaster is enamoured with showing the cursory Australian in 30th spot about to throw their javelin, or the cursory Australian being hammered by the Chinese at table tennis and about to lose their final few points.

Sochi 2014 was the first Games to merge the two. Talk of Australia with “12 medal” chances was optimistic in the extreme, with those chances realistically being “best day” scenarios of the athlete excelling and bad luck hitting a few opponents. The real expectation was 4, as identified by the highly accurate and well researched American magazine, Sports Illustrated.

Of course, so many potential medal hopes still meant many Australians in action, and the potential demise of large slabs of sporting drama to be consigned to news clippings. Conveniently, pay-TV has emerged to save fans in Australia from this never ending flag waving “oi oi oi” parochialism. Even though Channel 10 chose internet streaming for its supplementary coverage, not the four pay-TV stations that Channel 9 offered 4 years ago, their second free channel, One HD proved an adequate companion. Their overall telecast was good, with decent slabs of live viewing, excellent interviews and, given Australia’s obvious lack of abundant resources, surprisingly adequate commentators. After Melanie McLaughlin’s acquisition of a nasally bogan accent to fit in with the majority of on-screen Channel 10 personnel (she was recruited from Fox Sports where she sounded far more refined), the only hiccup I saw was going to an advertising break when the Austrian World Champion in the men’s slalom was about to make his run. Yes, his run was fastest, and stayed fastest of the remaining seven skiers for gold. Showing his run after the event as a replay, it doesn’t quite offer the same level of excitement.

Also great about the Winter Games is the totally different types of athletes, sports and vistas on offer. Speed skating (especially short track), cross country skiing and biathlon produce some of the most exciting direct racing possible. Far more exciting than people running around an oval track or swimming up and down a pool. Without the Winter Olympics, how else could I have a favourite cross-country skier, Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland? In Vancouver it took her until the 30km classical cross-country, the very last event, to shake off the Norwegians and finally win a gold. In Sochi she managed it early on, in the 10km classical, to become a dual gold medallist. There’s also the “Generation Y” sports like snowboarding and ski-cross to add more relevance for the youth of today, and also easier consumption to traditional alpine events that are decided by times and require dedicated viewing of the entire event to appreciate the competition.

Sochi was the first Olympics to return to Russia since Moscow in 1980. No expense was spared with virtually everything built from scratch, costing over $50b. To put that in perspective, London 2012 cost $12b – for a far larger Games. Being in Russia also presented the political controversy you’d expect, especially anti-gay laws. While the law against “gay propaganda” was new, Russia has always been anti-gay, so it’s mysterious that only on the dawn of the event that these issues become a problem – a repeat of the case with China’s Games of 2008 and the issue of Tibet. Terrorism was also a worry. Russian president Vladimir Putin would hear none of it. Nothing would stop these Games from being a success.

Champs

Australia finished with two silver and one bronze. Two of those were from expected sources, the other not so expected. They also told a tale in approach to winning those medals. David Morris, barely a top 12 hope in men’s aerials, approached his event with a strategy to achieve the best possible result. While other athletes could still out-score him on higher technical jumps, he knew he couldn’t compete directly with them so put himself in the best possible situation to be a “nuisance” to them, by sticking his jumps, ensuring they had to perform.

Morris landed cleanly all his jumps as he progressed through the last 12, to the last 8 (just) and to the last four (just). Once there, he landed his “money jump” to score 110.41 and give the remaining athletes no leeway for mistakes. Anton Kushnir, the Belarussian favourite, was next, and nailed his higher difficulty jump, scoring 134.50 to annihilate Morris’ score as expected. That put extra pressure on the remaining to jumpers, both Chinese. The first didn’t land cleanly, Bronze to Morris. The second didn’t land cleanly, Silver to Morris.

Torah Bright backed up her gold from Vancouver to nail silver in Sochi. Eerily, her performances were similar, crashing her first run, before completing the second. The only disappointment is that her first run was shaping up much better and would have won the gold easily. Her second, by many experts, was still good enough for gold, failing by just .25 points – the closest possible margin.

The winner, Kaitlyn Farrington of the USA, didn’t seem to have a run quite of the same quality. It was close, and as Torah said, that’s the nature of judged sports. Even then, there’s some residual regret that could have done better. The cavalier approach that the snowboarders take to the events is difficult to rationalise compared to the stoic concentration you see of athletes in other sports. While it could just be a coping mechanism for the stress of competition, it could also just mean that tiny fraction of effort and concentration lost that costs you a gold.

Torah also undertook two new events: slope-style and boardercross, and apparently did no training at all for halfpipe in the two months prior to the Games. She preferred to concentrate on boardercross in which she was only a late inclusion after injuries to other competitors before the Games and entered lowest ranked overall. She failed to progress from the first knockout race. If the cavalier approach didn’t hurt, maybe the reduced training did, especially for that first run crash. Compared to Vancouver, Torah’s run didn’t seem as polished nor did it match her score in qualifying in Sochi, where she returned the highest score of the entire contest – 93.00 (out of a possible 100). Her silver medal winning run scored 91.50. In Vancouver 2010 she scored 45.00 under a different scoring system, after scoring 45.8 in qualifying.

Torah Bright Half-Pipe Sochi 2014

Torah Bright in half-pipe action at Sochi 2014

Towards the end of the Games, former aerialist Jacqui Cooper slammed Torah for selfishness. “Whether she likes it or not, she’s actually a role model. A role model for athletes, maybe even a role model for parents and if Torah thinks someone’s getting hard done by, or if Torah thinks this or if Torah thinks that, people are going to actually jump on her bandwagon. So to create such a negative vibe during the Olympic Games – I almost think she should be ashamed of herself.”

Torah was at the centre of the “team outcast” affair, claiming other athletes were getting undeserved funding priority over others. World Champion Alex Pullin was singled out as “the chosen one” ahead of other snowboarders fighting their way through the ranks, and indeed, often already top 10 world ranked athletes. During halfpipe training at the Games Torah was critical of its shape, which only fed the selfish, spoilt narrative Cooper, along with several media trying to validate their character assassinations of Bright, was trying to push. Except, all athletes complained about the shape of the halfpipe at the time, and it was promptly fixed.

The criticism from Cooper was unjust. Jacqui Cooper was an Olympic flop and should be last to talk about “results” and “role models”. Due to the “team outcast” affair, funding models across the winter sports will be examined.

Chumps

Lydia Lassila, queen of aerials in Vancouver, sorry to say, was a disappointment here. Not in the medal, in the approach. The whole week the story proliferated of her performing an unprecedented quad-twisting jump. No woman had done it in competition; it was only the domain of the men, who were now creeping into the realm of 5 twists for a jump. Lassila only landed one in training, and that was barely a landing, and would not have sufficed as a good scoring jump in the Games. Coming into the final four of the final, the leading jump was only 99.01 with only one jumper left after Lassila. Given she scored 214 for two jumps under a different system in Vancouver, a score just over 100 with one of her triple twisting jumps was easily a gold medal, or silver at worst. No, toss away the highest percentage chance and go for the lowest percentage jump for some sort of glory to the ego. While she would have a certain gold via a huge margin had she nailed it, they don’t reward any extra for that. Surely it’s best to stick with the “money jump” in the final? Just ask David Morris!

The thing is, there’s countless World Cup events during the season that a quad-twist could be attempted “in competition”. Why do it at the biggest event of all that only comes across once ever four years? It actually smacks of an athlete under extreme pressure, not wanting to fail. By attempting the impossible jump it actually is impossible to fail. No one expects her to land it, so if she does, it becomes a miracle. If you fail, at least “you had a go” and “left nothing on the table”. It’s very typical of the Australian “bully sports pscyche”. The response to a challenge is often to bully the opposition and try dominate the task. Cricketers are the worst by often blazing away in tight run chases, swimmers are next by starting races too hard and using “it’s a racing meet” as an excuse for the loss, the Socceroos began to show hints of it in Asian World Cup qualifiers, and now we see it creep elsewhere.

The only saving grace of Lassila’s bizarre tactics is that her good friend Alla Tsuper of Belarus won gold. It was Tsuper’s fifth Games and finally she snagged the gold after so many years of dominating the sport and, like Lassila, having a baby. The tears that Lassila shed after the competition were primarily for Tsuper. In that sense it was a storybook finish, as Lassila already had a gold from Vancouver, now her friend has one. Strangely, Channel 10 commentators didn’t even recognise the nature of these tears, figuring it was sadness and disappointment at failure. As if! Maybe had one of the Chinese skiiers snatched the gold instead of Tsuper, then the story not quite the happy ending, and then would come the niggling regret.

Alex “Chumpy” Pullin. He doesn’t know how he got that nickname as given during childhood. It’s clear now. He’s a chump! Twice world champion, twice World Cup winner, twice favourite for Olympic Gold, twice fastest in qualifying, twice a monumental flop. He fell innocuously during the quarter-finals of racing, just like in Vancouver. What gives? Well, he stopped training in the lead-up to the Games to avoid any chance of injury. Say what? He stopped training in the lead-up to the Games to avoid any chance of injury. Yes! He stopped training in the lead-up to the Games to avoid any chance of injury. Even though Torah Bright ceased training for her pet event of halfpipe, she still did continue to train on snowboard for her other two events. That at least kept her sharp for competition. Clearly the strategy didn’t work for the Chumpster. No wonder Torah and the other snowboards were questioning the funding system. It actually costs nothing not to train.

Pullin wasn’t the only one to fall. Virtually the entire snowboard and ski cross events were beset by falling Australian athletes. It’s enough to give anyone the feeling that Australia and winter sports are not a natural fit. Wait!

Putin

One might think Vladimir Putin is the biggest chump of Sochi 2014. He’s not. Despite all the talk of terrorism, anti-gay propaganda and lack of snow, Russia and Putin get the last laugh. Russia won the medal tally, kept all venues secure, managed to reverse global warming for several week, and curtailed any attempts for mass demonstrations or even athletes making a stand against Russia’s poor gay rights. They did it with all the control you’d expect from a government led by a former KGB agent that it was almost invisible. Almost, because adding the names “Viktor” to recruits An (short track speed skating) and Wild (snowboard parallel slalom) did not quite assuage the reality of foreigners (Korea and USA, respectively) delivering 5 of Russia’s 13 gold medals. Travelling too far away from the Olympic venues and Sochi in general, you’d also have been greeted with a “ring of steel” guarding the city.

A new event was added of team figure skating that delivered a certain gold individually for the nation and to the ten individual Russian skaters that comprised the team. Talk about spreading the wealth. To reduce suggestions of a scam, the luge was also given a team event, which Germany somehow won after earlier winning all the individual events that comprised the team event. All that sliding on your back, you’d think that would tire a team out. Obviously not. To think, someone gets paid for dreaming up these events. What next, Short Track Taekwondo at PyeongChang for 2018?

If Russia made one mistake in their run for medal tally glory, it was not to recruit the entire Dutch speed skating team. The Dutch won over 70% of all medals for the sport: 8 gold, 7 silver and 8 bronze. Their one and only other medal was a bronze from short track speed skating. This must have been one of those Dutch skaters showing great agility on the inner warm-up ring so the Dutch coaches decided to throw the athlete onto an actual short track. No suggestions yet of a team speed skating event that incorporates all events and awards every Dutch speed skater a gold medal. Probably because nearly all of them won one anyway.

Of course, there was one Russian failure. That was ice hockey in which Russia lost to Finland in the quarter finals. The country threatened to go into mourning while Putin scurried away to figure out the ramifications for the team and how to console the nation. The solution was heavy make-up to prevent any cracks or emotion in his pristine, stoic face emerging. Before Putin ever needed to present himself for potential public embarrassment, up pops the Americans to be hammered 5-0 by Finland in the bronze medal game. Russia sleeps well at night with the knowledge that whatever Russia stinks at, USA stinks worse. Nah nah-nah nah-nah nah.

Beyond the great and glorious Games of Russian glory, slick organisation and toilets that actually do work, Putin saved his coup de gras for after the Games. As the world absorbs the waft of post Olympic harmony, Putin moves mobilises Russian troops in Crimean region of Ukraine. It’s been totally orchestrated by Putin, starting by revving up Russians in Ukraine to resist moves by Ukraine to join the European Union after a law was just passed to make Ukrainian the sole official language. Ukrainians and Russians clash outside the parliament building, the Russian friendly president is deposed, the former opposition leader is released from jail, and a more sympathetic president installed as interim. Russians in Crimea feel threatened, in moves Putin, Russian troops take control of the region, the region orchestrates a phony election to secede, it won’t have any legitimacy, will the region be annexed by Russia, we’ll soon know.

Having visited the region, most particularly Estonia and Latvia, one thing is certain about Russians: they will always regard themselves as Russian. They’re a gruff people, contemptuous of the locals. The Baltic states can be thankful for being so small and not as geographically important, and being members of both NATO and the European Union offers plenty of protection. Crimea is on the Black Sea, home to Russia’s southern naval fleet, so important militarily. Ukraine’s attempt to join the EU and further dismantle Russian grip in Europe, precipitated this entire affair.

One thing is certain about Putin: he will always regard himself as Putin. He’s a gruff person, contemptuous of everybody and everything else. The Olympics, the anti-gay laws – it’s all been about Russian grandstanding to antagonise the west, especially the USA. Barack Obama snubbing the Olympics was Putin’s goal, and now with the Olympics over, Putin makes his big move. While Obama and the west stumble about responding to Crimea, Putin’s simply reveling in his power. Much of Europe depends on Russia for oil and gas so are constrained to act, the Americans are too weary and lack any real strategy to intercede, and Ukraine ultimately would be better served without the millions of Russians forming part of their country.

Putin gets the Games, gets the Glory and gets Crimea (if he really wants it). The biggest chumps of Sochi 2014 prove to be the rest of the world. Putin thanks you for your attention.

If you liked this, check London 2012 – Hits, Misses and Meltdowns