MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A calamitous penalty shootout loss to Norway was a fitting end to a chaotic women’s World Cup campaign for an Australia team haunted by the shock sacking of former coach Alen Stajcic.
The Matildas, ranked sixth in the world, had been viewed as one of the top contenders in France but their last 16 exit was their worst performance at the tournament since 2003.
Football Federation Australia (FFA) has promised a review of the Matildas’ tournament but the governing body has already made it clear it has little appetite to revisit one of its more dubious decisions and one that impacted the team’s preparations.
“There has been much discussion about the decision to change the coach,” FFA CEO David Gallop told Australian media in France.
“It goes back to what we said at the time ... Put simply we believed change was necessary to give us the best chance to perform at the World Cup. We do not resile from that position.”
In January, the FFA made the stunning move to terminate long-serving coach Stajcic less than six months before the World Cup on the strength of an internal survey of players and staff and a supplementary review by a women’s rights group.
Stajcic, who had guided Australia to arguably its strongest ever position, was summarily dismissed without recourse.
“Our decision to act was driven out of care and concern for our players and people,” FFA Chairman Chris Nikou said in February, after an emotional Stajcic revealed he was mulling legal action.
Less than two weeks before the tournament, the narrative suddenly changed.
The FFA made a public apology to Stajcic and said he had neither breached his contract nor been sacked for misconduct.
FFA board director Heather Reid also apologized for fuelling speculation his sacking was for misconduct by sending messages to journalists saying if the truth were to come out, Stajcic would “never work again in women’s football”.
The apologies reignited the controversy as the Matildas made their final preparations for the World Cup under replacement coach Ante Milicic.
Media reports that Reid was at the World Cup were another distraction on the eve of their opener against Italy, with the FFA defending her presence as a FIFA invitee.
The shock 2-1 loss to the unfancied Italians triggered condemnation from former players and pundits, with Australia’s defense a shambles under Milicic, who had previously no experience in women’s football let alone as head of a senior team.
Australia battled back with a 3-2 win over Brazil but the strain was evident as captain Sam Kerr told critics to “suck on that one” in a fiery post-match interview.
Kerr’s four goals in a 4-1 win over Jamaica glossed over what was an underwhelming performance against a lightly regarded team before the 4-1 shootout loss to Norway on Saturday.
Local media have reported the FFA will conduct a review of the Stajcic decision but plenty of scepticism remains as to how willing the governing body is to hold itself up to the light.
Former Australia midfielder and pundit Robbie Slater told Fox Sports on Monday serious questions must be asked.
“We have to ask ourselves as a nation, ‘Did we deserve to win this World Cup?’ given what’s going on in the game and the turmoil,” he said.
“It’s quite simple, the World Cup was a fail. An absolute fail.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford