Saturday 19 January

Like everyone who heard the news of Alen Stajcic’s sacking on the afternoon of Saturday 19 January, I couldn’t understand it. My first thought, with David Gallop’s mention in that first press conference of the involvement of Our Watch, was that it must have been something terrible. 

However, the first inkling that things were not quite what they seemed was the chorus who were so quick to defend the decision. It wasn't a matter of hours, but less than 30 minutes for some who - apparently based solely on Chris Nikou’s and Gallop’s media conference as a guide - were using similar words: ‘If you knew what I knew …’.

It was noticed. There was push-back from many on #sokkahtwitter based on the Nikou and Gallop press conference. Throwing around words like ‘toxic culture’, ‘confidential anonymous surveys’, ‘inappropriate behaviour’, ‘long running discontent’, 'brewing for some time', and the ‘need to move urgently’ without any apparent detail to back it up or a countervailing view was at best, reckless and at worst, potentially defamatory and dangerous. 

If those who claimed to know something about the Matildas squad that the rest of us didn’t, why not share it? 

If those who claimed this had been “brewing for some time” - with some saying they knew something as long ago as April 2018 or even longer - why not say something before January 2019? 

And while the surveys to which Gallop referred may have been confidential, why couldn’t FFA redact parts of the survey report or completely de-identify it? It’s really not that hard to do.

Those who asked these questions were dismissed as either being homophobic or ignorant. Some said: ‘We know because we actually follow women’s football and we have deep roots into women’s football’. Yet this intimate knowledge of the game actually made their failure to say or do anything before the Nikou/Gallop press conference an indictment. 

Sunday 20 January

It wasn't until the next morning that my attention was really piqued. 

Because that is when I received a ‘brief’ also. 

I was told I should be “careful” in relation to commenting on the Stajcic sacking – not that I actually had at that time, other than share bits and pieces of others’ reporting and commentary. I was more focussed on the plight of Hakeem Al-Araibi. I was told:

  • that there had been “issues for some time”; 
  • that it was a “toxic culture”; 
  • that the PFA Wellbeing Audit – the results of which some now have – “identified serious concerns” and it was a “process over several years of inappropriate behaviour”;
  • it won’t be just Stajcic in the “firing line” but others on the staff too, with two names mentioned;
  • that Stajcic was called in to see the management of FFA, told he had to change the culture of the team, and Stajcic “refused to do so”; 
  • that Stajcic’s manner was inappropriate;
  • that a state federation had complained about Stajcic and another staff member; and
  • more information was available from a FFA Board Director which they would forward to me by text message.

After receiving the text message, I put a series of questions to FFA and Our Watch; and later in the week to the PFA. FFA has not yet responded; Our Watch and PFA responded but did not directly answer all the questions. It is disappointing, but not unexpected, from FFA; but also disappointing from the PFA whose name comes up regularly when trying to find out more about this story, and positions itself as being a leader in fooball on issues such as transparency and accountability. However, for the second time (the first time being who they voted for last November), they have failed to fully answer questions put to it. 

I also received more texts and/or private tweets from different people throughout Sunday and the next day, all sent to them from the same FFA Director whose text message was provided to me. In some of those messages, amongst other things, the FFA Director mentioned that “more is being revealed via certain journos”. 

Tuesday 22 January

After Gallop’s train wreck of a second press conference on Monday afternoon, which raised even more questions, I published an article that focused on five things that we did know so far:

  1. FFA hides behind ‘confidentiality’ only to the extent it suits them.
  2. FFA apparently knew nothing until the results of the surveys.
  3. Football has factions, and has long had factions.
  4. “Alen Stajcic is not like that”.
  5. The new Board is not off to a great start.

I wrote that Stajcic’s sacking and the ‘noise’ around it is a governance challenge for the new FFA Board. Governance issues and systemic cultural change are issues I have written and spoken about for almost ten years both in respect of the global game and locally. The new Board had promised transparency and we are not getting it.

Plus, because I was briefed and because of the tweets and messages I had, I was aware first hand that there was substantial activity behind the scenes to ensure that some people were given one side of the story - which could well be the accurate side for all I know - and that some people who were determined to damage Stajcic’s name, going so far as to say he would “never work in wofo [women’s football] again”. This was despite Gallop clarifying on the Monday that the dismissal was because Stajcic was “ultimately responsible” for the culture of the team.

I did not (and will not) publish the messages from the FFA Director in that article for two reasons.

First, all those who supplied them wanted their identity protected and, initially, I did not know whether they were the only six people in the world who had such messages, or whether there was more. Nearly all of them began with the words ‘If you knew what I knew.’ (I found out subsequent to the article being published that there are more recipients of these messages). Second, I also judged the content of those texts and tweets to contain defamatory material, not just of Stajcic but also other members of the Matildas coaching staff and a prominent member of the FFA Women’s Council. This was later confirmed to me as a correct assessment legally and I should not reproduce them. 

Sunday 27 January

I wrote last week that I was shocked to receive an email from a FFA Director on the weekend before which was an attempt to intimidate and bully me into silence after publication of my initial article. The email said:

Dear Bonita

On advice from my solicitor I request that you cease and desist from making comment or publishing any further potentially defamatory and disparaging statements that bring me, my character, my integrity and my role as a Director on the Board of Football Federation Australia into disrepute or legal action may be taken.

Yours sincerely,

[Name of the Director]

It’s not the first time football has threatened me, of course. 

I had hoped – like everyone else – that this Board would be different. I hoped that they would show a more inclusive culture capable of dealing with issues; that they would be transparent in their decision-making and not treat us like mugs; not try to silence those who ask questions; and not demean, denigrate and intimidate those who do. 

My solicitor wrote back to the Director on the same day stating that:

“[Ms Mersiades] has not published any defamatory or otherwise unlawful statements about you. Your email fails to mention a single one and included no particulars at all of any publication by our client that that may be actionable by you … Your letter is dismissed … as an unwise and improper attempt on your part to silence Bonita Mersiades. It is very inappropriate by any person let alone by a director of Football Federation Australia to attempt to intimidate any journalist … with a baseless email like yours of today.” 

Tuesday 29 January

After a response from the FFA Director that failed to give answers, my solicitor wrote to the FFA Chairman on Tuesday afternoon asking whether this Director was talking on behalf of the Board in respect of the original messages and tweets (some of which were included in the letter to the FFA Chairman) and the bullying of me. 

What was specifically asked of the FFA Board was:

  1. Whether the Director’s correspondence had the authority of the Board or whether the Director acted without any reference to the Board.
  2. If not, whether the Board of FFA condones the actions of the Director towards me and agrees with the terms of the Director's correspondence to me.
  3. If not, whether the Board of FFA would apologise for the Director’s inappropriate and uncalled for communications which had the clear intention to silence and intimidate me.

The FFA Chairman responded by saying: 

“The communications to which you refer are personal communications” of the Director. 

That, at least, is good to know. The Chairman's response means that the Director in question acted alone, and without any reference to the Board, and did not speak for the Board. 

Apart from that, it also gives us an insight into a Board which does not seem to be operating as Boards are expected to function. Boards should have one voice, and one voice only.

Wednesday 30 January

The next morning a FFA media statement said Board Director Heather Reid was taking a temporary absence from her role to focus on chemotherapy treatment. As a cancer survivor myself, I know what is ahead of her and wish her all the best for a full recovery. 

Where things stand today

There are still those who claim to have inside, superior knowledge of what went on in the Matildas squad, and continue to point the finger at Stajcic as being responsible for a “toxic environment”. That may be true; we still don't know. 

There are rumours, claims and counter-claims about that environment, including that the environment has been the same for decades.

There has been back-pedalling by FFA Board and management as this entire mess has unfolded. Another FFA Board Director issued a public tweet on 1 February, with the heading 'FFA Decision on Alen Stajcic', which he says is his 'own' statement. The point seemed to be that Stajcic did nothing wrong personally other than the team needed a “cultural reset” and the Board took the view, five months out from the biggest tournament in the world, that it should begin and end with the head coach.

Like many others, I have no idea what is accurate or what is not, or what happened or didn't happen; but on the basis of the information publicly available, it seems unjust that one person wears the blame for 'culture' - whether it's been going on for decades or since April last year. 

Perhaps some have been living under a rock, but a “cultural reset” takes more than one person and requires real and courageous leadership from the top.  

Stajcic remains silent, which some see as a sign of guilt. It could also be a sign of someone who has been sacked without warning and who wants to ensure his family’s future is as secure as it can be in the circumstances facing unemployment and a Director who has written that he is unlikely to work in 'wofo' again. I expect that he and his solicitor and FFA will be grappling over a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), which is designed to ensure that no parties ever speak about this issue. In reality, NDAs usually gag the sacked employee more than the employer who often has multiple means of getting their version of events out to the public (for example, leaking to particular journalists or social media influencers) than a suddenly unemployed former staff left on their own.

The Board should be held to account on the Stajcic decision and its aftermath by the football community.

Some individuals and organisations such as AAFC have called for an independent inquiry. There is little chance of that happening.

However, the Board should at least be in a position to respond to the following issues when it next communicates with us on this subject:

  • Does the FFA have a policy which sets the framework for its organisational culture and its teams’ culture?
  • Was the cultural review of the Matildas only or other national teams as well?
  • What is the precise nature of the involvement of the PFA and Our Watch? How did they become involved? Were the organisations given a brief? If so, by whom? 
  • Is the FFA Board satisfied that the surveys were conducted in an appropriate manner, and that the review findings were a true representation of the survey outcomes?
  • Who responded to the surveys? 
  • What was the process afforded Stajcic in being presented with information, hearing the alleged grievances against him, and having the chance to address them? If he wasn’t given this opportunity, why not?
  • If it is good enough for some members of the media to have the PFA Survey, why isn’t it being made publicly available with redactions and de-identifications?
  • On what planet was the person or people living on who advised the FFA Board when they made the decision to sack Stajcic on 18 January that this issue would ‘blow over’ in a few days? Their judgement in terms of issues management and understanding of their key stakeholder, the football community, is seriously lacking.
  • When did FFA staff know about the alleged serious problems with the Matildas ‘culture’?
  • If FFA staff have known for some time, as has been claimed, what is the Board doing about this organisational failure to act before now?
  • Why did a former Board member tell Stajcic that the internal FFA Women’s Committee was “out to get” him, what does this mean, and have they tested the purpose of this statement with the former Board member? 
  • Why is Stajcic the the only one being held responsible when it's not about something he did personally, but as manager of a team that requires a “cultural reset”?
  • In most organisations, culture is set at the top. What will the Board do about the culture at FFA, starting with itself, the CEO and senior management? 

This Board came into power with most members of the football community willing to give them a chance. The way this decision has been handled has eroded the goodwill, hope and optimism that many - not all - had for the game in 2019 after more than three years of governance battles. They’ve now put themselves behind the eight-ball, and it will take significant and obvious cultural change – starting with changing personnel at FFA headquarters - for the football community to start to have trust and confidence in the Board again. 

Let’s hope for football’s sake, they can do it.

And let’s hope the Matildas at the World Cup in June can show the world just what they’re made of. 

Categories: Opinion | Football Business

alen stajcic, ffa board, ffa governance, matildas

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