Heartbreak, allegations and zero transparency: The fallout from Australia's Alen Stajcic debacle
Every time the dust tries to settle around the curious case of Alen Stajcic's abrupt sacking, conversation and speculation blows in to stir things up again.
With each fresh disturbance the debris settles a little further out, to the extent that few in Australia's wider football family have not been touched by Football Federation Australia's bombshell decision to sack Stajcic as Matildas coach.
The man at the centre of the storm, the now "former" coach of Australia's national women's team, sounded world-weary when he spoke to ESPN. Less than 24 hours after fronting a packed room of journalists to present his side of the story, Stajcic resolutely stuck to his key message and refused to be drawn on whether the opportunity to speak gave him any sort of satisfaction.
"I was as open and transparent as I could be," he said. "I just wanted to clear my name and restore my reputation, that was all that [Monday] was about for me."
Stajcic's physical appearance at his news conference showed what a toll the ordeal has taken on him, and his words told of the impact on his wife and family.
That his players would also be affected was unavoidable, and one current Matilda (who requested anonymity) described the situation after watching Stajcic front the media.
"It's one of the hardest periods I've experienced in my career. This whole situation has affected a lot of people close to me," she told ESPN.
"To see someone who loves the game the way I do, so vulnerable and shattered, was heartbreaking."
Stajcic is still no wiser as to why he was summarily dismissed after 20 years in the game, and ambiguous statements from the FFA have given no further clarity to dampen the continuing speculation that has so damaged Stajcic's reputation, with words like "toxic environment," "homophobia" and "dysfunction" still floating around in the ether.
Former Matildas defender Kate McShea was matter-of-fact when asked about the "dysfunction" that Stajcic apparently admitted to within the national team.
"It's a group of 20-plus women, there will always be dysfunction -- but it doesn't mean you aren't united. And on the pitch, Staj had the team united," McShea told ESPN.
"He was always firm but never crossed the line. It's devastating for someone who has committed his life to the game to be in this position and to see the effect it's had on him."
Former Sydney FC defender Lisa Gilbert was around Stajcic on an almost daily basis for some eight years in the NSW Institute of Sport setup. When ESPN asked her what it was like to see someone she worked with so closely have to face the cameras to defend himself, Gilbert broke down.
"He built his career on integrity and how he holds himself, and to have that integrity brought into question ..." she said through her tears. "I consider him as a father figure to me. He spent time away from his family to build our football family.
"I've never met anyone more passionate about the game."
Gilbert also said that allegations of anti-gay sentiment attributed to Stajcic are laughable. "I'm absolutely gobsmacked that this was even raised as a question," she said. "Really, completely floored.
"He was the number one person I could call on about any issue in my life. He openly supported me being gay and has always been there to talk to about anything, anytime."
Gilbert says the support has never wavered, even though she retired as a player in 2010.
"We still catch up regularly, he knows our kids, asks after them and comes to their birthday parties," Gilbert continued. "He and his family are part of my family's life. If there was any homophobic sentiment, why would he continue to engage after I was no longer a player?"
Another player to work with Stajcic, former Australia international Melissa Barbieri, was never afraid to speak her mind both on and off the pitch, and after countless occasions facing Stajcic-coached sides at club level, Barbieri had good rapport with him even before he took on the top job at the Matildas. Barbieri posted a touching message and photo on Instagram during the week.
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I have stopped myself posting this pic a few times... for fear I may be downplaying the situation or the hurt that Staj must be feeling. I have decided that as a former Matilda and being not only someone who Staj has hated, (he hates anyone who won't let Sydney FC Score) thrown banter back and forth with, (like the time I beat him in a cross bar comp and he he had to serve me dinner that evening) and highly respected (when I played my last game for Australia in the 2015 World Cup) that it was time to remind him of the legacy he truly has. This 👆🏼 Apart from being awkward, passionate and professional - a humble Family man with female football at his core. To Brenda and the Kids. You guys have sacrificed so much so that we could have his utmost attention. This is not how we would like to repay you. To Staj.... your reputation is fine with me and I'm sure likewise with many others. If you need a reminder at any stage just make a call. We will be there. ⚽️ Bubs
But while Stajcic has received overwhelming public support, not everyone was a fan of his coaching style. Former Matilda Joey Peters has been vocal in her backing of FFA's decision to sack Stajcic.
Good to hear this is being investigated. He has reached his ceiling, play is too predictable and hasn't evolved. Pushing players and injury plague needing inquiries as well. And that's just an outsiders perspective. Well done @FFA https://t.co/rD6jVTmJEL— Joey Peters (@joeypeters10) January 18, 2019
Discussing a coach's perceived frailties is common practice for football fans, and many hours can be passed in debate around the merits of their preferred candidate.
However, what is most concerning is the still-unknown information held by FFA board member Heather Reid and alluded to in the press just after Stajcic was sacked.
Reid told the Sydney Morning Herald: "It's a pity that there aren't more parents and players prepared to speak up about some of his behaviour. If people knew the actual facts they would be shocked."
Reid has since been granted leave from the FFA board for personal reasons.
As the search for those actual facts continues, the Matildas roll on and hopefully will go deep into the the tournament come the World Cup in France in June this year. The search for answers in the case of their former coach may last much longer than that.
Whether the ripple effect sets women's football in Australia back years remains to be seen, but the ability to hold the Matildas up as the pinnacle of women's sport has been severely threatened by how Football Federation Australia has handled this saga.
Hearing parents say they no longer want to take their daughters to Matildas games because "it's a mess" and not the inspiration they were hoping to give their youngsters. Hearing that female coaches in the game are reconsidering their career choices due to the politics involved... this is not what women's football has fought so long for.
Until the facts are laid out, the air cannot be cleared and rumour and innuendo will continue to float in the air, tarnishing the once golden brand of the Matildas.