MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Amid the pride of landing one of the most coveted jobs in women’s soccer, Ante Milicic might have felt he was wandering into a hornet’s nest when he agreed to take over the Australian team.
On the surface, guiding the world number six ‘Matildas’, a team on the up in a World Cup year, was a golden opportunity for a former Australia striker known more as a trusted lieutenant than a proven head coach.
Yet, as he cast his eye over the squad at their first training session two weeks ago, he would have known he was watching players who had a big hand in the sacking of his predecessor Alen Stajcic.
In charge since 2014, Stajcic had helped turn the Matildas into a global force but was fired in January for presiding over a ‘poor culture’ soon after an internal survey of players and a supplementary review by a women’s rights group.
While players queued up to criticise Stajcic’s removal and voice their sympathies, others remained silent, and local media reported disharmony in the dressing room.
Amid threats of legal action from Stajcic against Football Federation Australia (FFA), an organisation long riven by special interests, Milicic had just over a week to train the Matildas’ focus on the inaugural Cup of Nations.
On Wednesday, Milicic’s Matildas sealed the title with a 3-0 win over Argentina in Melbourne, their third victory in succession after beating New Zealand 2-0 and South Korea 4-1.
Their opponents were hardly top-shelf, with 19th-ranked New Zealand the best of them, but the comfortable nature of the wins would have been a great relief, both for Milicic and FFA boss David Gallop, who pointed Stajcic toward the exit.
“We’ve made a lot of steps in a short space of time,” Milicic said at the post-tournament media conference.
“As a foundation, a starting point I’m more than pleased the way the last 10-11 days have gone.
“It was not just about seeing the girls getting match minutes, but in a few different positions.”
One of Milicic’s first moves was to appoint striker Sam Kerr as captain, a role the 25-year-old embraced with both hands as she scored three goals in the tournament.
Kerr was the linchpin of a powerful forward setup featuring Hayley Raso, Caitlin Foord and Emily Gielnik.
Milicic has problems at the other end of the park, however, where the Matildas’ defence was often outpointed and all too often had to rely on the composure of goalkeeper Lydia Williams.
Australia will have a better measure of their strength when they take on the World Cup champions, the United States, in a friendly in Colorado on April 4.
Apart from that, the schedule is bare, and Milicic said he would be busy trying to tee up more warmups before the World Cup in France starts in June.
“Games against European countries are my preference and I definitely want one game against a top-10 country,” he said.
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly