As the charred husk of the Matildas’ Women's Asian Cup campaign lies smouldering, ex-coach Alen Stajcic isn’t gloating over the plight of the nation which contentiously dumped him three years ago.
After this past weekend's AFC Women's Asian Cup Quarter-Finals, the irony, delicious or otherwise, of guiding an unfancied Philippines to the last four in India, whilst the Matildas bombed out, isn’t lost on Stajcic.
Stajcic not gloating
- Former Matildas coach Alen Stajcic, controversially dumped three year ago, isn't taking any pleasure from his former team's Asian Cup exit.
- Stajcic is focusing on beating South Korea to take the Women's World Cup-qualified Philippines into Sunday's final.
- The Australian has written his name in Philippines football folklore with the team's glory charge in India.
More news on Aussies Abroad can be found on FTBL.
Privately it might have seemed to him a karmic moment.
But publicly he’s purely focused on masterminding a miracle against the Matildas’ conquerors South Korea on Thursday night in quest of a place in Sunday’s final, having already qualified the Philippines for a first ever Women’s World Cup spot, in his homeland in 2023.
Playing a bat straighter than Allan Border, Stajcic, 48, permitted himself the most fleeting of satirical chuckles when asked if he was conflicted over the Matildas’ untimely exit - a 1-0 loss to the Koreans which heaped opprobrium on head coach Tony Gustavsson.
“I’ve really tried to remove myself from being attached to the team and the group,” Stajcic said of the Matildas, where several sentimental ties still bind between ex-coach and playing group.
“I didn’t just coach the national team for five years, I was also part of the development program at Sydney FC, and the NSW Institute of Sport as well as the Young Matildas.
“When you’ve been around the system for over 17 years there are some pretty close attachments and bonds there.
“But I’ve had to distance myself from that connection at this tournament where Australia beat the Philippines 4-0 in the group stage).
“I’ve tried not to have feelings either way - and treat it strictly professionally."
Stajcic, though, was an intrigued observer as a late wonder strike from Chelsea’s Ji So-yun punctured his former protégés.
“I thought it was a pretty even game, though Australia had more chances - especially in the first half,” he said.
“But when you have a player like Ji, who’s technically so good, the game can change in a flash. And that’s what happened.
“Australia were probably the stronger and better team, but weren’t able to capitalise on their chances - and that’s why they’re probably copping a bit of criticism.”
Probed on whether he had any sympathy for Gustavsson, Stajcic replied: “Nobody is immune from criticism.
“I’m really focused on what we’re doing and can’t get distracted by everybody else’s issues and problems.
“Every team has their own issues to deal with and we have to deal with our own, without worrying about anybody else.”
Amidst the euphoria of becoming tournament upstarts, Stajcic - who is on a short-term contract - confirmed he has yet to officially commit himself to leading out the Malditas at the 2023 World Cup.
However, that must surely be a formality.
“It is (the contract) short-term at the moment and I don’t want to lose focus,” he said. "Whatever happens after next week is probably a story for another day.”
Having spent 10 weeks in California preparing a squad sprinkled with an assortment of Filipina diaspora, Stajcic lavished his charges with superlatives.
“To see what we’ve been working on come to life is an amazing and unbelievable achievement,” he added.
“To a large extent it’s miraculous, given the difficulties that have been overcome in terms of half the group in Philippines barely playing in a year and we’ve had players scattered around the world only coming together sporadically.
“To be where we are now is really a monumental achievement. There are plenty of other players around who we’re also looking at in the same way that Australia has recruited (overseas-born) players like Martin Boyle, Harry Souttar and Fran Karacic.
“The big objective has been achieved in qualifying this nation for their first World Cup, and now there’s a huge semi-final where we’re massive underdogs against one of the AFC superpowers.”
Stajcic singled out the Philippines’ loss to Australia in the group stage as, counterintuitively, the moment that belief began to grow.
“I remember at the 2015 World Cup with the Matildas we lost 3-1 to America,” he recalled.
“It was 1-1 at halftime and we’d played the best football I’d seen from us up until they point.
“Even though we lost, that day planted more steel and belief in the group than any occasion prior. It showed they could match it with the best team in the world.
“I had a similar feeling the other day when we played Australia. I walked off feeling that having competed with Australia for one half that we believed that we do belong on this stage.
“I think it was a turning point and this squad, with a bit of full-time work, dedication and discipline, can get to where they want to go as individuals and as a team.
“The thirst to learn is something I haven’t seen before. As a coach, I couldn’t be happier for them.
“They’ll give everything they’ve got left in the tank against the Koreans.”
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