At midday on Saturday, FFA Chairman Chris Nikou and CEO David Gallop, told invited media that the head coach of the Matildas, Alen Stajcic, was dismissed with immediate effect because of unspecified matters to do with the “culture and environment” of the team. 

The decision was taken on the basis of a range of information including two confidential surveys, one of which – we have now learned over the past 72 hours – was a survey of all FFA staff, the Matildas and the Soceroos, conducted by ‘Our Watch’, an organisation whose primary purpose is to deal with issues of domestic violence against women and children. We understand 232 individuals were invited to take part in that survey and 140 responded.

The mention and involvement of ‘Our Watch’ in the same sentence discussing the dismissal of a male coach of a women’s sporting team leads most people to an awful set of questions. Has he had an inappropriate relationship with one or more of the players? Has he forced any of the players to do something degrading? Has he been violent towards the players?

Gallop denied on Saturday that Stajcic’s dismissal was anything related to the ‘#MeToo’ movement, but the lack of specificity about what did cause the FFA Board to come to this drastic action only invited people to speculate. 

Yet on Monday afternoon, in what was presumably an attempt to make it better, Gallop stated that there was “a tight timeframe” for the Board to act as matters had “deteriorated rapidly in recent times” and that “further information available” to them last week meant that Stajcic had to go. 

He said it was not one specific incident but a “cumulative effect” of a “toxic culture” for which Stajcic was “held ultimately responsible”.

The fact that Gallop is unable to be specific means one of only two things. Either, Stajcic has done something so bad that it’s actually a matter for the police; or FFA realise they’re on fragile ground and it’s preferable to let the speculation run on. 

If it was the former, Nikou and Gallop should have said so on Saturday; they have had ample opportunity to do so since; and that would be the end of the story. 

If it’s the latter – and this looks the more likely scenario in light of Gallop’s statement that Stajcic was “held ultimately responsible” for something, which implies he was not directly involved - then the decision of the FFA Board can only be viewed as precipitous. 

We have put a number of questions to FFA and ‘Our Watch’ (reproduced below) in the past 24 hours but neither have responded by the time of publication. 

This is what we do know.

1.              FFA hides behind ‘confidentiality’ only to the extent it suits them

FFA has hidden behind the tag of ‘confidential surveys’ on the basis that they’re protecting the Matildas players. However, it is quite possible to be transparent about the reasons for Stajcic’s sacking without exposing an individual. 

It is also apparent that FFA briefed some media and others about the news ahead of the announcement on Saturday. While backgrounding media can and does happen regularly, generally journalists will use that briefing as one input only – not run it as a PR line as surrogate spokespersons for the organisation. Further, when it is something as sensitive and potentially incendiary as this matter is, it should not be selectively leaked but given to all media. 

Within minutes of the announcement, individuals such as Lucy Zelic of SBS-TV, Anna Harrington and Tara Rushton of FOX Sports and Clint Bolton were actively pushing the same narrative: that if everyone knew what they knew, they wouldn’t be objecting to what FFA had done, and that FFA did the only responsible thing.

What is more unusual is that FFA’s communications strategy apparently includes the Deputy Chairman, Heather Reid, actively messaging members of the football community since the decision was announced also, presumably in an attempt to influence their opinion and their activity on social media. At least, we assume Reid’s messages are part of the official communications rollout because, if not, it’s a highly irregular way for a Board member to act. 

We are aware of at least six people whom Reid has contacted in this regard; we have seen the messages; we have the messages. 

They are all slightly different so we will not reproduce them here to protect those who have shared them with us but, in summary, what they say is:

  • that, if everyone knew what really went on, they would be shocked;
  • that Alen Stajcic will never work in women’s football again;
  • that the list of allegations against him include bullying, homophobia and recriminations;
  • that there will be more departures from FFA and/or the national team.

Reid provides no evidence to support her statements. 

2.              FFA apparently knew nothing

In April last year, eight senior executives of FFA were in Jordan for the AFC Women’s Asian Cup: former Chairman Steven Lowy, former Board member/ AFC Executive member Moya Dodd, Gallop, Head of Women’s Football Emma Highwood and her offsider Sarah Walsh, Head of National Performance Luke Casserly, COO Mark Falvo and Company Secretary/Legal Counsel, Jo Setright. PFA representatives were also in attendance.

Amongst the touring at Petra and the sheesha bars in Amman, none of these people seemed to notice a problem with the Matildas team culture at that time. The Matildas were runners-up in the tournament, losing to Japan 1-0 in the final. 

Not long afterwards, the PFA suggested an audit of both national teams. 

However, according to Gallop, the events for which Stajcic is blamed are “relatively recent” which doesn’t fit with the description of it being about ‘culture and environment’. 

Culture is formed over a number of years; in a team, it can evolve from generation-to-generation; it isn’t sudden or recent. 

Others involved in the technical side of football say that, if FFA was really serious about culture in women’s football, they would also look at the W-League and A-League teams.

It is the case that the national team environment can be separate from the corporate tower of FFA. 

However, it is not plausible that a ‘culture and environment’ issue would occur so suddenly. It is also not plausible, in light of the fact that executives such as Highwood, who attends practically every training camp and every game of the Matildas in her capacity as Head of Women’s Football and who freely enters the team camp and dressing room, as well as Head of National Performance, Luke Casserly, that someone at FFA was not aware of these alleged issues before they became urgent last Friday night.

Gallop vehemently denies that he or any of his staff should be held responsible.

But if the buck stops with Stajcic, then it also stops with others above him who are paid very handsomely to be aware of these matters. 

3.              Football has factions, and has long had factions

In today’s Australian newspaper, Ray Gatt writes that:

“[Stajcic] has won widespread support from the soccer community, with many believing he is the victim of a witch hunt and vendetta. The Australian understands there have been forces within and outside the game who have sought to undermine Stajcic.”

This observation from Gatt refers to what appears to be a perfect storm for Stajcic of a number of different forces. We understand from speaking to a range of people that these include:

  • The highly influential Dodd who is reported to blame Stajcic for undermining her pick as the Matildas coach, the short-lived Hesterine de Reus, resulting in de Reus’ dismissal and Stajcic’s appointment in 2014;
  • Reid having a longtime commitment to have women in key positions, as she did in her decades running Capital Football and at Canberra United, including as Matildas head coach and the FFA CEO position. One of the suggestions for Stajcic’s replacement is Reid’s long-term friend and former Canberra United coach, Rae Dower. This possibility was even referred to on Twitter by an apparently well-placed insider on 4 January.
  • The Head of Women’s Football, Emma Highwood, who only last year expressed a strong desire for a woman coach of the Matildas, an intrinsically worthwhile objective; and
  • Some players who were dropped by Stajcic from the Matildas during his time in charge, or players close to players who have been dropped by Stajcic. 

4.            “Alen Stajcic is not like that”

Those who know him best - players, other coaches, journalists and administrators - say the reasons given by Gallop are not the Alen Stajcic they know.

They say he is a hard taskmaster, demanding, and pushes the players to high levels of professionalism, as you would expect from an elite national team. His attitude and professionalism were favourably compared with Ange Postecoglou, Tony Popovic and Graham Arnold. 

“He’s coaching the women’s national team. They’re number six in the world for chrissake. It’s not an under 7s match on a Saturday morning where they just rock up, stick on the boots and run around for an hour or so,” said one coach.

Those who know Stajcic also say the former high school teacher is well-prepared, thorough and “has a good manner” with players.

He is married with daughter and a son and is said to be proud of the Matildas achievements from a personal perspective also, because it helps show his children how good women’s sport can be. 

5.              The new Board is not off to a great start

Nikou asked the football family to give the new Board 100 days, and to be patient while they improve the relationship between the FFA Board and the football community. 

They could start by being open and transparent about why Alen Stajcic was sacked. Hiding behind the veil of ‘confidentiality’ while one Board member sends secret messages to the football community, and some journalists are apparently briefed and given responses when others are not, does nothing to build confidence and trust. 

It’s now 65 days since they were elected, 42 if we’re generous and start the count from their first Board meeting on 11 December last year. 

Either way, the clock is ticking. 

The questions FFA and Our Watch have not yet responded to

Questions for FFA

  1. Was the initial survey initiated by the old Board or the new Board? 
  2. When did the survey take place?
  3. Who completed the surveys? Were they voluntary or compulsory? How many players completed them? How many team staff completed them? How many (non-team) FFA staff completed them?
  4. On whose recommendation was the organisation ‘Our Watch’ engaged by FFA?
  5. Who supervised the work of ‘Our Watch’?
  6. Were ‘Our Watch’ engaged to conduct a further survey due to a reported incident or incidents of violence towards players?
  7. Have any of the matters raised in the confidential surveys been referred to authorities (such as the police)?
  8. Why didn’t the FFA refer the results of the first audit to workplace organisations such as Worksafe NSW?
  9. Will any other team or FFA staff member lose their jobs as a result of these surveys?

Questions for 'Our Watch'

  1. According to the FFA CEO today, Our Watch approached FFA about conducting its survey as one of a number of sports you had approached. Could you please confirm that this is the case?
  2. Could you please advise which other sports you approached?
  3. Could you please advise whether the other sports for which you have undertaken surveys have had similar findings to that of FFA/Matildas?
  4. Did you make any specific recommendations to FFA management about the findings of the FFA/Matildas survey?
  5. Was Our Watch consulted about the termination of employment of the Matildas Head coach, Alen Stajcic?
  6. Were any of the findings in the FFA/Matildas relevant to the primary purpose of the Our Watch organisation as set out on your website?
  7. Have any of the findings of the FFA/Matildas survey been referred to authorities?
  8. Could you please outline the experience of Our Watch staff assessing the survey returns in working with professional sport?
  9. Has any employee of either FFA or the PFA (Professional Footballers’ Australia) worked at Our Watch?

Categories: Opinion | Women

alen stajcic, ffa board, heather reid, chris nikou, ffa management, matildas

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