FFA put in the spotlight after Matildas' loss to Italy
IN THE days following the shock dismissal of Alen Stajcic, there was a strong sentiment within the Matildas' playing group.
Don't let this derail our World Cup.
It takes years to prepare for football's greatest showpiece. It's a project, a four-year project, that begins almost as soon as the previous World Cup ends.
Stajcic was more than four years into his project when his contract was terminated by Football Federation Australia.
More importantly, the Matildas were less than five months out from the World Cup.
A Matildas side one tournament triumph away from officially being regarded as a "golden generation". A Matildas side boasting one of the world's best players, Sam Kerr, at the absolute peak of her powers.
Of course, the decision to sack Stajcic was not taken lightly by FFA.
Amid reports of a worrying culture within the team and on the back of two confidential surveys, football's governing body felt it had no choice but to act swiftly and decisively.
When the lack of a real explanation led to damaging innuendo, FFA added that a slump in form under Stajcic was also behind the decision.
Indeed, the Matildas won just seven of their 17 games in 2018, drew six and had only one win during the Asian Cup. Some in the game felt Stajcic had run out of ideas, falling back on his reliable veterans and often playing players out of position.
Still, the full reasoning behind the decision to sack him remains murky.
When the players themselves moved on swiftly under new coach Ante Milicic by winning the inaugural Cup of Nations at home, then provided glowing reports of the improved professional environment they were now working in, fans and pundits were willing to move on too.
The fact that Stajcic himself had quickly found a new role as coach of the Central Coast Mariners helped.
But then came the extraordinary "unreserved apology" from FFA board member Heather Reid to Stajcic barely a week out from the World Cup.
"I apologise unreservedly for the damage, distress and hurt that I have caused to Alen Stajcic as a professional football coach and long-time servant to, and advocate for, Australian and women's football," Reid said, referring to comments she had made to journalists about how Stajcic would "never work in women's football again".
She had also claimed people would be "shocked" if they knew the facts of Stajcic's behaviour - comments that formed the very basis of the damaging innuendo.
The fact Reid is, at this very moment, in France just 10 days after issuing that statement is a poor look.
But even that might have been overlooked if it wasn't for the Matildas' worrying start to the tournament.
The Matildas went down to the USA 5-3 and were then beaten 3-0 by the Netherlands in friendly games before the World Cup, exposing cracks in defence and allowing some doubts to creep in.
But make no mistake, losing to Italy on Sunday night in their opening match of France 2019 is a major upset.
Sure, Italy are an up-and-coming nation in women's football, but this is the first World Cup they've qualified for in 20 years and they are ranked 15th. Australia are ranked sixth and at the previous World Cup in 2015 reached the quarter-final stage.
Anything less than that this time will be deemed a failure.
Milicic has World Cup experience, having been there twice with the Socceroos, but this is his first role as head coach and the first time he's worked in women's football. He's also got another job already lined up as coach of new A-League franchise Macarthur.
When he took over from Stajcic four months ago, Milicic made a fair comparison to Phil Neville.
The coach of England's Three Lionesses, Neville had also never worked in women's football before he got the job.
The difference is Neville has had 18 months to prepare his side, and he hasn't committed to coaching another team.
The Matildas were punished by the Italians in the shock 2-1 loss. Individual errors resulted in goals and twice the Australians were saved by the offside flag when the high defensive line employed by Milicic was caught out.
The offside calls were so marginal they easily could have gone against Australia, and against a better side, make no mistake, they will.
But Milicic has the players to bounce back, which they'll have to do against South American champions Brazil. No small task.
The Matildas haven't let opening game losses derail their campaigns in previous World Cups - they have just one opening-match win in six tournaments - but if they do so this time the FFA will have more burning questions to answer.
Because the negative energy following the Stajcic saga remains -, that much was clear when Kerr was asked about her former coach during the pre-match press conference, a day before the Matildas' opening World Cup match.
And that negative air will linger if this talented group of Matildas go on to underperform in France.