Some things are just meant to be - that’s how Alen Stajcic summarizes his impending reunion with his former Matildas charges at January’s AFC Women’s Asian Cup in India.
Nearly three years after being contentiously dismissed by Football Australia chiefs, Stajcic - who went on to revive Central Coast Mariners - permits himself a rueful smile at the prospect leading the 64th-ranked Philippines into action against the side he coached for five years.
“It was always going to happen,” Stajcic said of the draw which pits the Philippines in Group B alongside Australia, Thailand and Indonesia.
“But the reality is Australia (who as co-hosts are not competing for one of five direct World Cup qualification spots up for grabs) don’t really matter in this tournament,” Stajcic told FTBL.
“They are playing for experience and the prestige of winning the Asian Cup. But for us, and the others, vying for one of those spots is the biggest priority.
“For the match against the Matildas I have to put my own ego aside and really focus on the big picture of the tournament.
“We have Thailand and Indonesia in our group and to be honest they’re bigger matches for us.
“As important as the Australia game might be for me personally it’s certainly not in the big picture for us.
“They are 11 countries chasing those five spots and we have beat those nations that can qualify.
“Australia are a super power, and measuring up against them right now is a daunting challenge.
“We need to focus on the games we can win.”
Stajcic, who has a short-term deal with the Philippines Football Federation, looks back with pride rather anger over his Matildas tenure.
“I spent 17 years in women’s football in Australia, traversing the spectrum from the NSW Institute of Sport, the Matildas for five years, the U-17s national team and the W-League for seven years,” he added.
“That’s a great history that I get to enjoy and remember and I have that feeling and connection with.
“But I’ve moved on now - it was three years ago I left the Matildas and now my full focus is trying to get this team to the World Cup.”
Stajcic is two weeks into a training camp in California ahead of the Asian Cup, attempting to craft and mould a raw group of players into a feisty and competitive unit.
“These players do lack experience in major tournaments but there’s a great desire there to work hard and improve,” he explained.
“The hunger and motivation is impressive - and there’s a passion to qualify for the first World Cup for their country, male or female.
“There are a lot of players who’ve played a decent amount of football and a couple based in Japan.
“The PFF have provided great resources and for me this is a chance to share my knowledge with a team that’s had to do it tough.
“I think back to our experience in Australia of not qualifying for a World Cup in 32 years and to have the honour and privilege to possibly lead the Philippines to a first World Cup is a huge incentive for us.
“I watched them play at the last Asian Cup, which was their first appearance there in 20 odd years.
“They really surprised me: they lost 3-0 to China and 4-1 to Thailand. But they were definitely in every match, and I remember thinking with a little bit of structure and organisation (they could be far more competitive).
“You are now starting to get players who have 30 to 40 caps under their belts.
“It’s a tough - we’re the lowest ranked out of the 12 countries there and will have to punch above our weight to be successful.”