In 2010 I ended my career overseas in Norway, exhausted after a year of dealing with a painful ankle injury along with experiencing two different clubs go bankrupt, and the personal financial fallout that came with that.
So, I decided at the age of 31 that it was time to start pursuing something more financially stable and moved back to the US to start pursuing some business opportunities and start getting a grip on life after soccer. I still played pick up every day during the year and in the summers in the semi-pro leagues in the US and Canada.
Unfortunate for me, in the summer of 2012 I managed to get one of the more horrific foot injuries, a Lisfranc, which essentially knocked me out of playing for almost a year.
As a female player, I spent all of my 20’s playing abroad. I had played in Denmark, and was a part of a Champions League Final team in my first season as a pro, and had also played in Norway, and for the Republic of Ireland (where my parents are from and where I have a passport) after a stint training in Residency as a guest player for my native Canada.
But at age 33, and with a busted foot, I knew in my head that there was still one place and one league I had always wanted to play in to check off the final tick in my soccer playing bucket list.
So I set the silent goal of playing in the Australian W League, and spent a good part of 2013 training hard without telling anyone, rehabbing a messed up foot, with that end goal in mind.
It wasn’t an easy goal by any means, as each W League team only had 3 international spots, and with it being the off season for the American league and many top European leagues, spots were tough to come by.
I had messaged a load of clubs, and was ecstatic when Adelaide, in the south of Australia, said that they would sign me.
Until they messaged me suddenly 2 weeks before I was supposed to go telling me they signed someone else instead.
I had already connected with Melissa “Bubs” Barbieri, a goalkeeper on the full Australian team at the time, and someone I had met when I had been back to visit my friends at my old club in Denmark, and who was supposed to be my teammate in Adelaide. When she checked in a couple of days after I had been dropped, I embarrassedly told her Adelaide had abruptly fallen through.
In one of the biggest acts of kindness I received in my career, she told me that she would call every club head coach for me in the league and get me at least a tryout somewhere.
And within a day, she messaged me back saying that she had spoken to Alen Stajcic, the head coach of Sydney FC.
He said that I could come tryout with them, no promises.
So after coordinating a couch that I could sleep on with an old friend I had played with in Norway who now lived in Sydney, I hopped a plane to Australia.
I started a 2 week tryout with Sydney FC, who had won the league the year before, and was heading to the Club World Championships in Japan a month after I arrived. They were littered with some of the current top players in women’s football, such as Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord of Australia, and Jodie Taylor a current star forward for England, and many, many other incredible players.
I was 34, coming off a serious foot injury, and hadn’t played at the top level in a couple of years.
Not intimidating in the slightest.
At my ripe old age I had experienced many, many soccer environments and coaches, assholes and good people, to the point that I could give a character assessment of a coach pretty quickly based on how a player was treated in these sorts of circumstances. Being a no-name tryout player that the coach owed no favours or kindness towards, intensified this character litmus test even further.
And so I, the no-name player, landed at Sydney FC’s practice, with a little bit of trepidation in terms of how it was going to go.
Sydney FC’s head coach, Alen Stajcic, or Staj, as everyone called him, was professional, straightforward, inclusive, and kind to me as a person.
You remember things like that clearly in vulnerable circumstances.
On the field, he was a fantastic coach. Training sessions were phenomenal and enjoyable, and you could see the respect and the loyalty that he got from all the players he worked with on Sydney FC.
He was very demanding, but it was obvious that he brought the best out of every player. As female players whose basic wish is just a professional environment to grow and become better in, you could see the players respond in a positive way. Sydney FC, in his tenure, was a perennial power in the league, including that year because of his leadership on and off the field.
After a couple weeks of training with them, Staj ended up offering me a spot on the team. But after realizing pretty quickly based on the incredible talent on Sydney FC that I wouldn’t play much, juxtaposed with getting a good financial offer from the Newcastle Jets, a team that was desperate for defenders and experience, I made the decision to move 2 hours north to Newcastle and take that opportunity instead.
Again Staj was kind, understanding and classy when I told him that Newcastle was just a better fit for what I was looking for, and he wished me the best of luck.
I thanked him for one of my best soccer experiences, training under him with those incredible players, for those couple of weeks that I was with Sydney FC.
Because of this, when I heard the other day that he was sacked suddenly from his position as the head coach of the Australian Women’s National Team, it caught my eye and my interest.
This being despite the fact that I’ve pretty actively separated myself from the elite female soccer world, joking, but kind of being serious with my non-soccer playing friends, that I have PTSD from my career.
Mostly, because this situation with Staj, and the mistreatment of people in general, is the kind of messed up shit that happened often, that I just don’t miss from the soccer bubble anymore.
When I heard the circumstances of his departure as the head coach for Australia 5 months before the World Cup it caught my eye further as I’ve heard this story before.
The sudden nature and hazy details that spoke vaguely of player surveys and a toxic environment, countered by almost the entire team writing words of shock and support on Twitter, directly counteracting the narrative that the Australian federation was putting out to the public.
Journalists referring cryptically to a situation that they couldn’t quite reveal but that supported the Australian federation’s side.
Everyone wondering what the truth of the situation is.
In these kind of situations I’ve seen two different scenarios, both solved pretty quickly with transparency, which is something that is lacking far too often in the women’s game.
From what I have seen and experienced in my career there are 2 potential situations that are at play with this situation in Australia, and based on my experiences, I’ll chip my own two cents and experiences in here:
Situation 1: Player Safety:
With no concrete reason given in the Stajcic case, and only a reference to “confidential player surveys” and an “investigation” and findings that included a “toxic environment,” – if things were so bad then absolutely the federation needs to take action, and more importantly, be transparent about it.
But where is the accountability from those in charge at the federation that they would be so asleep at the wheel to have to take such drastic action so close to a major event, if this was in fact the case?
In Canada, during my playing career, 3 WEEKS before a youth World Cup, the head coach of the youth national team “mutually parted ways” with the Canadian Soccer Association. This was immediately after many players, including myself, were interviewed about his conduct, with some fairly serious allegations involving underage players, floating around.
We were told that the mediator we were interviewed by, was hired by the Canadian Soccer Association and the club that he was also the head coach of. Few details were given to the public, as in this situation, and the governing body got away with sweeping the whole thing under the rug. The media did little to dig and his departure was framed publicly as a “mutual decision,” with zero reference given to the extensive interviews that many of us players were subjected to. His leaving of the post coming days after the interviews wrapped up.
The lack of neutral investigators (aka not paid for by the CSA or his club and thus having their interest as their number one concern) and the fear in the young players of speaking the truth and the potential of saying the wrong thing and having it cost them their youth World Cup opportunity, is something I will always be scarred by. This method of “truth seeking” (which was more to see if the smoke led to fire and how big the fire was and if and how fast they needed to run from it) ultimately left the entire truth of what had gone on, buried.
This coach was not banned from the game or investigated further by parties outside of the federation (although us players were told he wouldn’t coach again to calm and quiet the situation in the immediate aftermath). Because of this secrecy surrounding the situation, and the lack of formal follow up to the situation, he is back coaching young female players.
From that standpoint, federations should not be allowed to vaguely frame these situations. If player safety is compromised in any situation that deems a coach being let go from teams, then absolutely, it needs to be fully and transparently investigated, reported on, and followed up with, and there should be legal mandates to do so.
There should be formal protocols and repercussions for future coaching opportunities if player safety is compromised in any way.
This type of transparent full investigation also gives the coaches the chance, if they didn’t do something, to be fully exonerated by a neutral party. If innocent, they deserve to have their name cleared in the public space that they are being judged and gossiped in, that will affect their reputation and future opportunities.
A lack of transparency in these situations benefits no one.
Players have the right to a safe environment.
Coaches have the right if they did nothing wrong to have their reputations left intact.
Federations should not be allowed to play God in these situations when the repercussions for everyone are so serious.
Situation 2: Federation Bullies
On the other hand, I also witnessed another situation in Canada that a national team coach, because they started to ruffle feathers of the governing body and demand better for the female players, was actively run out by the federation.
From my experience and what I have seen, like any power and money led organization, federations want puppets for coaches or at the very least people that play the political game and leave the federation’s own power, ego and control intact. These organizations have the ability to destroy the careers of people who don’t beat to their drum and can hide behind the veil of a lack of transparency to do so.
In this second situation I witnessed the aftermath of this national team coach and their staff, in which a good friend was a part of, who was actively calling out the CSA behind the scenes for their lack of financial transparency and other transgressions. They suddenly and brutally had the rug pulled out from under them and lost their coaching positions, never to get a job of a similar caliber again.
It is beyond f*cked up to destroy great people and coaches, yet without transparency and accountability it happens far too often.
Federations should have some basic tenets of accountability and transparency to keep their power and ego in check and not be allowed to destroy people’s careers if they feel their own power being threatened.
This could very well be the scenario with Stajcic, someone that has been heralded by the players and fans alike for pushing the women’s game forward in Australia, but without a full transparent and neutral investigation, we will never know.
So where does a person go to find the truth?
In these situations, from my experience the media and not even the players can be trusted because in these high stakes situation at the end of the day, it is every man for themselves.
What are the roles then of media and players in these situations as an avenue for truth?
The Media: Learning about the role of the media, is kind of like learning that doctors don’t always have your best interest, or that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
We’re raised to believe that media is the truth seekers and truth tellers, but in reality, their career gets ahead if they are in with the right people, and most media won’t bite the hand that feeds them. In the sense that Federations hold a lot of clout and power, and most media will twist and taint storylines, or not report at all, to be able to maintain their own position within the hierarchy.
When I started to read on twitter of Australian journalists throwing out a narrative supporting the federation, but not quite being able to say the why’s, this gave me deja vu to other situations I’ve seen in the past, where the federation wants to control the narrative and the media is all too happy to stay on the right side of the powers that be.
From my experience the truth is not so easy to find when paychecks are involved.
Just ask the guys at Fox and CNN in the US, how and why the same stories can get spun in such different manners.
The Players: At the end of the day, part of my PTSD of being a player in elite women’s soccer, is how god damn fearful everyone was/is in rocking the boat and losing opportunities because of it.
As a player you have no power.
And with no power, there is little opportunity for a voice or truth.
It’s the sad reality of it, and one I don’t miss from that world at all.
As someone that had both the benefit of a passport to play for another country, little tolerance for authority figures that bullied, and a lack of fear in standing up to them, I usually always found myself in my own career in Canada taking the bullets for standing up and saying something in the many rotten situations we found ourselves in.
I still feel triggered hearing about athletes in other sports that are bullied and vulnerable in their environments and that don’t/didn’t have a voice and had shitty things happen to them, because it is/was the reality for most of us that got to the top level. This goes for many coaches as well.
Look no farther than the case of Leni Kaurin a national team player from Norway in 2014 that had her entire team (my old club and many old teammates) sign a letter of support for the coach that admitted to sexually harassing her, and who benched her when she made clear her lack of interest in him romantically.
She lost her club contract when she spoke up about it and eventually quit soccer and her national team career in the aftermath.
Her coach/admitted harasser on the other hand, kept his job and the players that signed the letter in support of him kept their playing contracts.
This situation gives an ugly glimpse of how people in the game often acquiesce to the powers that be in fear of losing their own opportunities, at the expense of the truth and even well-being of the people around them.
Because of this, to see the players tweet anything about Staj is significant because the federation does have a say in who makes teams. It is telling that so many of them had the courage to tweet support of him publicly.
That all being said, these are government funded organizations and therefore should be forced to publicly address these situations and adhere to general rules of the societies they function within.
Players need and deserve protection.
Coaches need and deserve protection.
Both have given their lives to the sport and their craft, and both deserve transparency and a full investigation of the truth in these kinds of situations.
It should no longer be allowed or good enough anywhere for these kind of circumstances to be spoke of in cryptic tones by these federations, and such important decisions to be pushed through with little explanation. Full transparency should be demanded by FIFA, by governments, by the organizations themselves and the high values they supposedly stand for.
Otherwise this f*cked up world of elite women’s soccer will continue, at the benefit of few, and the detriment of many.
In this situation, in my opinion Alen Stajcic and the Matilda players deserve better.
I can only go by my own experience, but I have nothing but good things to say about how I experienced his professionalism on and off the field. To have his national team coaching career end so suddenly in a cloud of unsubstantiated innuendo seems absolutely inappropriate and unfair.
With so much human carnage, one has to ask themselves, if players and coaches can’t have a healthy and safe environment to thrive in as a basic tenet of their participation, do World Cups and Olympics really matter?
I don’t miss this f*cked up side of the elite women’s soccer world whatsoever.
Players and coaches alike within it, deserve better.
Thank you for a very well piece that gives small glimpse into football journey.
Thank you. There have been three things – players complain about skin fold testing as being fat shaming. Players who are partners off the field, are no longer allowed to stay together in the same room, and some have just spat the dummy because they are no longer being considered – and with the WC window this year for player shopping…..there is also rumor about this is personal revenge from a former female admin as her choice of previous coach was a disaster, and Staj reported that she was not up to it and he replaced her. A tweet dated 4th Jan from a now deleted account basically said, don’t worry girls, soon we will have a female coach and the off field issues will end. The followers of that account @moyadodd @Reidyfour @joeypeters10. Then add ABC’s @TraceyLeeHolmes.- They want a female coach to take them to the World Stage to say hey look our progressive we are. Unless Staj did something reprehensible (and I don;t think he did – they paid him out in full) – every single person involved should be removed from the game.
Well said wawg
Thanks for your insight.
I’m very jaded with this whole situation.
FFA = 😦
Great article, Ciara. Except for an elite “few” who are apparently have all “the facts” the Australian football community is also reeling. Though as you so ably put it, the administration of women’s sport at the highest levels seems to be f*cked world wide.
On other things; it’s gratifying to read the the W-League is highly thought of outside Australia; and it seems that this 65 yo guy has found another strong female blogger to follow. Looked back at some of your earlier blogs, Brene Brown FTW!
Really useful insights Ciara, from one who speaks with authority (and admirable clarity) on the subject.
The situation with Staj seems to be a ‘Situation 2’, heightened with the addition of a personal grudge from a board member, with the gender politics card being employed ruthlessly. Your thought that “a lack of transparency benefits no one” is spot on, and that the federation doesn’t seem to understand this, and thus adds fuel to the pyre under its own feet is, sadly, all too predictable.
Particularly useful too, is your reminder of the role of the media, some of which (Holmes, Zelic, for example) have either allowed themselves to be played (naive and lazy), or have preemptively taken sides (cynical and reckless), and have thus encouraged “a cloud of unsubstantiated innuendo” to wreak “human carnage”.
Such a shame, not only for those intimately affected, but also for the Matildas themselves, who have risen from public obscurity over the last couple of years to become a genuinely beloved national team.
Thanks again for your thoughts.
I have an administrators view from a different code
This article is the absolute truth Unfortunately
I do not see any reference anywhere in all the “bulldust” to any independent psychologist attached to the Matildas on a 24/7 basis
If there has been no psychologist available without question to the Matildas Players
Then David Gallop and his minions are the ones who should have gone because they have failed in their duty of care
Well said Ciara. Alen can’t defend himself due to the ‘confidentiality’ that FFA keep saying. He has a family and bills to pay, if he says anything he probably loses his termination payment.
Back when he got the gig as caretaker, and was successful, FFA didn’t give him the job, he had to apply, then they extended the deadline for applications, so technically he was the best coach for the job 3 times. There was talk then certain members of the board wanted a female coach