• Alen Stajcic hugs Kyah Simon and Lisa de Vanna of Australia after the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 (Image: Getty) (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Alen Stajcic is a man with his eyes firmly set on one goal – taking the Matildas to the top of the world rankings.
By
Jill Scanlon

Source:
Zela
5 Jul 2016 - 9:35 AM  UPDATED 8 Jul 2016 - 12:03 PM

As coach of the Australian national team, Stajcic and his charges have had a year to remember.

In the past 12 months the Matildas made history when they became the first Australian team, men's or women's, to win a knockout stage match at the World Cup, going through to the final eight; the team then qualified for this year’s Olympics; and in the recently updated world rankings, Australia sits fifth behind the four super-powers of women’s football - placing it as Asia’s top ranked side.

Alen Stajcic took on the coaching job in 2014, where he reshaped a group of seemingly discontented players into a focused and mature team with a drive to succeed.

It’s taken hard work in a short space of time, focusing on off-field elements as well as on-field performances, but the coach says much of the group’s drive comes from the development of a good team culture – a mix of maturity and leadership.

"The off-field way that players conduct themselves and the way they act around each other and act towards their sport now, I think has improved and evolved and matured and usually when you see that kind of attitude and behaviour within a group - it is reflected on the field."

“Certainly a culture has developed from the values we have within the team and that’s driven by leadership from within the group - we’ve worked tremendously hard on that aspect," said Stajcic. "I really think we’ve evolved and I think you see some of the results of that cultural aspect on the field.

"The off-field way that players conduct themselves and the way they act around each other and act towards their sport now, I think has improved and evolved and matured and usually when you see that kind of attitude and behaviour within a group - it is reflected on the field. And I think most of Australia is now starting to see the evolution of this team because of a lot of those reasons.”

The team spends a good amount of time apart when not preparing for a major event or series. Although some players are spread across the globe on overseas contracts, Stajcic has made sure communication has stayed strong between himself and the players.

The majority of the team has spent recent weeks living in each-other’s pockets before the selected squad heads off to Brazil for a four week training camp in the lead up to its opening match at the Olympics. It’s crucial time together according to the coach, which counteracts the effects of so much time apart as a team. Stajcic believes that the time spent together cannot have the necessary positive outcomes if there is not a good culture within the group.

“We spent seven weeks together last year and I think it was really a time where the team laid a foundation for how we wanted to act as a group and how we behave among ourselves and the relationships that we wanted to have so that the form of the team could improve,” he said.

One of the most pleasing outcomes ... has been the development of one player in particular – the captain of the team.

One of his main goals and objectives has been to encourage and nurture leadership. One of the most pleasing outcomes of this, for Stajcic, has been the development of one player in particular – the captain of the team.

“Lisa de Vanna is a clear cut example – I don’t think there were too many people in the football fraternity two years ago who would have said that she would be captain of our country," said Stajcic. "I think she’s a tremendous person with qualities that have previously been submerged within her personality and within her demeanour.

"It’s the art of being able to get all those positive qualities out, to bring them out and to empower her to share them with other people and she’s definitely done that. I think she’s shown tremendous maturity over the last year or two and her leadership within the group has been fantastic - and I hope it keeps improving as we go along."

From this change in the team’s culture, comes the improvement in its performances and from that has come a new appreciation by those following the Matildas’ progress.

“I still think there’s a lot of hurdles to overcome to make women’s sport as mainstream as I think it should be. It’s improved and it’s come a long way but I still think there are miles and miles of improvement and potential in all women’s sports in Australia."

“I think there has been an attitudinal change among the culture of Australians and Australian football followers. I think there’s a new found level of respect for the team and for women’s football as a whole," said Stajcic. "Women’s sport has definitely got a lot of attention over the last 12 months and we’ve been at the forefront of that. To have that sort of change in attitude and I guess that sort of evolving attitude, is pleasing.

“I still think there’s a lot of hurdles to overcome to make women’s sport as mainstream as I think it should be. It’s improved and it’s come a long way but I still think there are miles and miles of improvement and potential in all women’s sports in Australia."

 

Longterm plans

 

Following the Olympics there is a lull in proceedings for the Matildas – perhaps a welcome break initially – but certainly a substantial gap before the players will be required to pull on the green and gold again.

The AFC Women’s Cup is in 2018, with the next FIFA World Cup the following year; by 2020 the next Olympics in Tokyo will be looming large.

So what does a national coach do to keep that team culture, so newly cultivated, as an active part of the team’s psyche?

“In the past we’ve let the team be wrapped in cotton wool for too long before getting back together again – sometimes not kicking a ball together for six or seven months, which is certainly something I don’t want."

“In the past we’ve let the team be wrapped in cotton wool for too long before getting back together again – sometimes not kicking a ball together for six or seven months, which is certainly something I don’t want," said Stajcic. "I want a little bit more continuity within the group and to have the type of preparation where we at least get together and have contact every couple of months. It’s not easy because there are a couple of different factors that make it difficult, but it’s certainly one of my goals to have that continuity within the team over that period.”

“I’ll be definitely having even closer communication with the players during that period whether they are in W-League or playing overseas. I’ll be watching as many matches as I can and giving them feedback on how they’re going, things they can improve on, so that they can become a better team when we do get back together,” he said.

Stajcic will also be looking at the growth and development of the squad and using the break in international commitments to identifying future talent. He admits that one of his long-term objectives from the start has been to increase the depth of the squad.

“I think if you look at the short time I’ve been in the job, we’ve done that fairly well; we’ve definitely increased the amount of players. Someone like Chloe Logarzo springs to mind as someone who wasn’t on the radar 12-24 months ago and is now virtually a household name for people who follow our team.”

“Our job is to find more of those and possibly create a good group of 25 or 30 players who are competing for spots and that in itself will drive the team to even greater heights because, when you’ve got that competition for spots, there’s no doubt that it pushes every individual even more."

“Our job is to find more of those and possibly create a good group of 25 or 30 players who are competing for spots and that in itself will drive the team to even greater heights because, when you’ve got that competition for spots, there’s no doubt that it pushes every individual even more. But definitely one of my goals over that period will be to find more talent; and that’s then job of the W-League clubs and the players that are there and put in the hard work to knock on the door and say they want to be part of this program and want to be part of this team moving forward,” said Stajcic.

 

All eyes on Rio

 

While long-term planning is an essential part of any coach’s job, the biggest task lay just weeks ahead and is the only focus for Stajcic and the players at this point.

The squad for Rio has been selected and the Matildas are in.

For Alen Stajcic this challenge is perhaps the biggest so far on the road to edging the Matildas towards number one in the world. He believes this team is capable of challenging any team on any day.

“The world of Women’s football has gotten closer in the last 18 to 24 months, where we genuinely don’t know who is going to win each game," he said. "So I think that’s good for the sport – and the good part for us is that we’re progressing through the pack and lifting our positioning in that pack as we move forward.

"That means on any given day and in any given tournament everyone considers us to be one of the top teams and a realistic chance of getting on a podium."

“My goal has always been the same if we keep improving. I’ve said it many times – I want us to be a world class team. That means on any given day and in any given tournament everyone considers us to be one of the top teams and a realistic chance of getting on a podium. For us to do that we have to be good without the ball and with the ball - I really focus on and how well we do in our team shape, our structure, our philosophy and our style of play. So really, if we can do all those things well and show that level of maturity and consistency with these young players, then there’s no reason why we can’t be a top two or three team in the world,” he said.

Step one on that trajectory therefore is a podium finish in Rio.

“Our objective is to win a medal. No one knows what number or what best describes our chances but I know if we play at our best we are a realistic chance of winning a medal.”

It all kicks off for the Matildas on 3 August with their first game of the group stage against Canada in Sao Paulo.


 

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