Football Federation Australia (FFA) is on dangerous ground.
Last Wednesday I had the privilege of attending an event at Macquarie Park in Sydney entitled ‘Women in Sport and Business – A Morning with the Matildas’.
Respected ABC commentator Stephanie Brantz hosted the 90-minute function and the 100-odd people present enjoyed in-depth interviews with three current Matildas and coach Ante Milicic.
Alanna Kennedy, Lydia Williams and Tameka Yallop spoke eloquently about the growth of the women’s game, the ramifications of the new found financial arrangements that were confirmed late last week and the challenges faced by globe-trotting female footballers who must juggle two leagues and international commitments in their busy lives.
The event was typical of the public face that has been built and nurtured by the women’s national team in the recent past; open, transparent and honest. However, it was Milicic who stole the show.
Taking the reins after such a tumultuous time for the Matildas and replacing Alen Stajcic at the helm just months prior to the World Cup in France, Milicic was to experience a baptism of fire as the media scrutiny grew day after day around the details of Stajcic’s departure.
Potentially, it was to be unfair on whoever took over the role and the former Socceroo and Olyroo assistant certainly looked a man under the pump as he frantically sought to settle the ship and get the Matildas to the tournament with their minds on the job and the level of belief required.
History will judge the performance as acceptable yet disappointing. The group stage was navigated with some stirring comebacks and hairy moments, yet the penalty shootout loss to Norway in the Round of 16 stung.
Such is the nature of knockout football and the penalty shootout concept itself, however Milicic’s team could at least hold their heads high after getting within moments and inches of a quarter-final.
One of the key decisions to be made prior to the tournament was Milicic’s choice of the right woman to lead. His choice proved to be somewhat inspirational, successful and popular.
Last Wednesday, Milicic told the story behind his decision to appoint Sam Kerr as captain of the Matildas. At just 26 years of age and with more than enough on her plate as the team’s taliswoman, avoiding placing another layer of pressure and responsibility on the world superstar could well have been seen as a logically and fair minded consideration to the situation.
However it took just two training sessions for Milicic to see things in Kerr that helped him form the view that she was the logical and best choice for the position.
The day before initially meeting his players, Milicic spent the day with his coaching staff; getting to know them as people and forming a strategical approach to the first sessions he would run as coach of the Matildas.
The following day, amidst some training sessions that saw the squad eager to impress their new mentor, Milicic called a player meeting. The players filed into the room and Samantha Kerr plonked herself in the front row.
It caught his eye immediately, perhaps expecting the WNSL’s best player to find a spot up the back, with feet up on the chair in front and chewing the gum lodged in the mouth. Milicic quickly learned that Kerr was far more nerd than jock.
He recounted the story of asking the players some questions in his opening remarks. The first three of which were answered by Kerr. What a dork!
He was immediately impressed with a young woman so obviously keen to impress, please and improve. Just days later, the pair shared a conversation where the Chicago Red Stars’ forward was informed of the qualities Milicic had observed in her and an offer to accept the captaincy was made.
Knowing the magnitude of the decision and the associated responsibilities of leading one of Australia’s most loved and competitive sporting teams, Milicic exerted no pressure. He told Kerr that he understood the enormity of the decision and suggested she, “take her time” and “sleep on it.”
Kerr’s response was stunning. “No, I want it.”
It was a brilliant story and one that gives me goosebumps even now as I tell it to you. It confirms for us all the innate confidence and lust for ownership and responsibility that sporting champions have. When things are on the line, Sam Kerr wants to be in the midst of the action, making the decisions and addressing the successes or failures in the post script.
The Matildas are lucky to not only have one of the biggest stars in world football but also a woman prepared to put her proverbial neck on the line and accept the repercussions no matter how good or bad.
Tim Cahill was of the same ilk in Socceroos’ kit and Graham Arnold is probably still yet to find a man to replace him. No doubt he will in time, yet the Matildas are undertaking no such search for a leader.
Sam Kerr will do just fine for the next few years – and so will her team.