Clichéd though it may be, the old adage that 'a champion team will always beat a team of champions' still rings true, perhaps more so in the modern age than ever before. It is a maxim that has certainly proven its worth for Australia, who recently burst into the top five of the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking for the first time.
Not that Australia are short of star personnel by any means. They have more players in USA’s NWSL than any other nation outside North America, while the likes of Elise Kellond-Knight and Katrina Gorry have been recognised by the AFC in their annual awards over the past 18 months – the latter named the continent’s best in 2014.
But coach Alen Stajcic - who, somewhat remarkably, has mentored some of the national team players since their pre-teen years - has also engendered a strong sense of team purpose and unity within the group. And the results have been nothing short of spectacular. Narrowly edged by Japan in the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup final, the Matildas reached the quarter-finals at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™, and most recently qualified for the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016 thanks to a near-perfect campaign in Asia’s notoriously tough competition.
“I think it is a given that a united group makes for a stronger team, and the better you are going to compete,” Stajcic told FIFA.com. “But it has been our main goal to make every individual as strong as we can, and that has been a big emphasis. Making sure everyone is at their peak, be it technically, tactically, physically, mentally. Yes, there has been a lot of work done on the field, but perhaps more so off the field.”
*From high school to high achievement *
A former teacher, Stajcic taught several of the current squad while employed as the football coach at an elite sports’ high school in Sydney. There he oversaw the development of at least half a dozen national team players from a young age - current squad members Kyah Simon, Chloe Logarzo, Teigen Allen and Caitlin Cooper among them. Add in nearly a decade coaching in the national league, plus a stint as national U-20 coach, and Stajcic had coached the vast majority of the Matildas’ squad prior to taking the reins in mid-2014.
It is, of course, rare that a national team coach has a role in the development of senior internationals all the way from their pre-teen years. Unsurprisingly, the 42-year-old Sydneysider admits it has been a gratifying experience. “Someone like Chloe (Logarzo) came in as an 11, 12 year old, and who was tiny and seemed about 20kg wringing wet! To see someone like that grow and develop in that environment – and she went through a massive transformation – is very pleasing.”
*Unity of purpose for Rio *
Football fans will have another chance to plot the Matildas' growth in August when the Rio Olympic Games takes centre stage. And Australia’s love affair with all things Olympic-related will offer a rare chance for the Matildas to step into the national conversation.
The team have sought out numerous former national team players, elite athletes, and indeed famous Olympians, to speak to the group as part of their focus on development. “We pick their brains about what they do that is successful,” says Stajcic of his guest speakers. “It has been both useful and inspiring, and we can look at how they do things and what we can adapt to our team.”
The Matildas have long held a reputation as a resilient bunch, and Stajcic says that ethos remains. “There has always been a good team ethic within the group, and a never-say die-motto,” he said. “We are a fairly young team, so there is so much room for growth, personal development and leadership, and all the things in that field.
“The players have always found themselves fighting against the odds, be it just being female footballers, female athletes, whether it is being Australian, or all those things put together. So there has always been that hunger within the group to become better and more respected. And now that there is a little bit of reward from it, it further emphasises how important those (off-field) attributes are.”