When Hesterine de Reus, a then-unknown-to-us Dutch coach was announced as the replacement for long-standing Matildas coach Tom Sermanni, a small contingent of Matildas wrote a letter. In it they asked not to have a female coach.
It was a shocking letter at the time – it still is. But what makes it shocking is few could have predicted how quickly things would sour in Australia with the Matildas’ newly appointed female coach and in America with its former male one.
I’d argue, though, that the issue is less about gender than approach.
A peculiar and peculiarly telling moment played out just before the Matildas’ first match against Brazil got underway in Brisbane last Sunday. Embattled coach Hesterine de Reus, normally taciturn and introverted, walked down the seat line, high-fiving the players who’d just assembled on the bench.
It looked like a forced gesture, with neither de Reus nor the players appearing entirely comfortable with the display. All went along with it, though, and those of us who witnessed the moment felt a mixture of awkwardness and empathy.
I’ll state up front I’m not an overt de Reus fan, and haven’t been from the get go. But I’ve held off stating that publicly or explaining why, because I wondered if we’d gotten off on the wrong foot, if it were due to language or cultural mis-steps, or it wasn’t her, it was me. Recent days’ headlines indicate it could have been any or all of those reasons, but that I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t yet worked de Reus out.
But I did feel for her during that high-five gesture (and the post-match press conference at which the clear line of questioning the journalists wanted to pursue was not the Brazil game that had just finished). She might be stoic, but she was understandably wounded by the furore and the public, gossipy way the alleged revolt unfolded.
One can only imagine how unsettled de Reus feels now her predecessor – much-loved gentleman and steward of, and ambassador for, women’s football in this country – Tom Sermanni, is now a free agent. Let go by the US equivalent of the Matildas mere hours after the Matildas’ Brazil game, Sermanni would be an easy and effective resolution to a situation widely considered untenable.
Even better, Sermanni has coached all the players previously, led them to the Asian Cup championship they are now, in approximately one month, required to defend. And there hasn’t ever, to the best of my knowledge, been a player revolt against him.
In my humble, in-expert opinion, the issue with de Reus isn’t that the team doesn’t like the coach – there are plenty of footballers worldwide who aren’t enamoured of their coaches but still find ways to work with them – or even that she’s female. The issue is her to-date approach has not demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the multifaceted, complex, and intertwined aspects of the issues she’s tasked to address.
I haven’t asked players to comment for this article – that isn’t fair to them, they have to work with de Reus, and there’s already an investigation underway – but I will outline two things I’ve personally witnessed that have puzzled me.
1. De Reus seems to be of the opinion that it’s solely the coach’s fault if a player sustains an injury - which includes the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury.
Sitting in the media box one day, de Reus said as much to me in reference to the spate of ACL ruptures that occurred in the W-League’s opening weeks. When I asked her if she’d like to be interviewed about it, to elaborate further, she declined, saying she was saving it for an exclusive interview with another publication. I’ve never seen such an article come to fruition. I’ve often wondered if I misunderstood her.
I don’t consider myself a knee-injury expert, but it is fair to say I’m someone who has something of a fixation with them. I’ve written three articles alone about it for FourFourTwo. The most recent one, ACLs the Sequel, was published here mid-way through W-League Season 6. I underwent knee surgery and an excruciatingly long rehabilitation myself some 12 months ago.
Suffice to say, I’m well versed in knee injuries’ causes, the available and most current research, and the recommended preventative measures. Simply put, there are innumerable factors at play when a player sustains a non-impact knee injury – anatomical structure, neuromuscular control, and even potentially hormones – which makes preventing them a virtual, and very serious, game of whac-a-mole. To attribute responsibility for these injuries to any single person or factor is overly simplistic.
Larger concerns and issues include that non-existent funding and a stunted W-League season means coaches are working with players for too-short periods of time to comprehensively establish and sustain good knee-injury prevention practice and start seeing results.
The prohibitive expense of coaching courses and the little support early career coaches receive mean few of them have been able to pursue the coaching licences to the levels they’d like. Ergo, they might not have the knowledge or training that would help them prevent some knee injuries.
Likewise, many players are playing for little to no money and are juggling a bunch of other commitments such as work and study. They are, therefore, not able to concentrate on training, recovery, and rehab full time. They’ve also often come through informal coaching channels and without help developing good knee injury-preventative techniques long before the W-League coaches see them.
De Reus’ energies would be better spent raising awareness about knee injuries, helping elevate and embed knee-injury prevention programs, and pushing for greater funding for players and coaches alike so they can concentrate on football full time. My guess is those practices would make a greater injury-prevention dent.
2. There’s a fine line between pushing players to lift and undermining their confidence and, subsequently, performance.
De Reus was mandated to usher in a new level of professionalism in the national team, to take it to the next level. No doubt after some seven years under Sermanni’s tutelage the players had fallen into a comfortable rhythm. They understood his expectations and he theirs.
Had the players got too comfortable? Maybe, although I don’t think you could ever be entirely comfortable competing every day to retain a coveted spot on a national team, while younger players are coming through and you know your career could be cut short or ended any time through injury.
Could a fresh approach and a shake-up help a little? Possibly. But simply inserting a new coach was always going to do that. De Reus has demanded commitment from the players, but perhaps hasn’t understood the players are dedicated and committed. You have to be with women’s football, with love the payment because it certainly isn’t money.
Under de Reus, there seems to have been a concerted effort to keep players hungry. Case in point: The team for Cyprus wasn’t announced until roughly 9pm the night of the W-League grand final. That means players both had to go into the final knowing their performance there could not just determine the championship, but whether they were going to be selected for the national team. They also had to pack as if they were going away, with interstate players not being able to travel home again in the interim.
This selection-non-selection uncertainty coincided with the first week of university, a crucial week when lecturers give overviews of the semester, assign people to tutorials, show students the semester’s ropes. Many of the players also work part-time jobs, so they would have had to contact both their uni lecturers and their employers to say something that sounds the antithesis of professional: ‘I might be going away for three weeks, but I won’t know for sure until late Sunday night. If I do go away, could you please take notes for me and/or take me off the roster? If I don’t, please ignore this and could I continue as normal?’
Given that none of the players are being paid in the realm of professionals—a paltry $33,000 plus match fees—they’re likely relying on the cash from those part-time jobs. So de Reus’ late team announcement would have messed with them not just mentally, but financially. Players such as Melissa Barbieri and Heather Garriock, who recently had their first children, would have found this doubly tricky, with contingency plans for babysitters also likely in the works.
The official line I got from the FFA when I queried why the team announcement was so late was because de Reus wanted to hold off and see if there were any injuries. I could barely contain my eye roll. That wouldn’t be an acceptable practice with the Socceroos. And those guys are paid to play full time.
In the event of an injury, the injured player doesn’t travel. You call up one of the players on the periphery and they fly either immediately or a few days later. There’s precedence for this. Michelle Heyman, for instance, got the call-up for the Olympic Qualifiers in China in 2011 when Sam Kerr did her ACL a day after arriving. There’s no need to mess with the other 20-something players of the squad for one or two injuries.
I also wonder what that meant for the cost of flights—were they booked late and, therefore, more expensive for a team that’s already working with few resources? Or were they already booked and the players were simply kept in the dark? If it’s the former, that’s irresponsible use of resources. If it’s the latter, it blows the wait-for-injury excuse out of the water.
Either way, tension about national team selection would have been an unwarranted distraction for players heading into a grand final. Compounding that tension was that contracts have been cut from 12 months to six, an unsettlingly short tenure with the ink barely drying before players need to again prove their mettle in order to be re-signed.
It was always going to be a case of finding new equilibrium with de Reus arriving. And Sermanni was always going to be a hard act to follow. He was a one-of-a-kind coach, gentlemanly, grandfatherly, even tempered, measured in his approach, and adored by players and media alike. Apart from having a different personality and ethos, de Reus was tasked with shaking things up.
My guess is Sermanni understood that in the absence of significant funding, developing relationships and utilising resources such as media coverage would be his best bet at raising awareness about women’s football and steering it in a more sustainable, full-time, professional direction. De Reus’ approach seems more inward than out. It may be fine long term, but it’s difficult to see its success right now. It may also explain why the media coverage of the purported revolt shows little of her human side and story – the media simply hasn’t yet seen it.
De Reus is calling for professionalism from the players, but I’d argue the professionalism she should also be calling for is from the FFA, which continues to pay mere lip service to women’s football. Although the Matildas were playing A Internationals against world number six Brazil and just a month out from the all-important Asian Cup, which doubles as a World Cup qualifier, the FFA didn’t send up such staff as a media officer. This despite the fact there would be enormous media interest in the team at this time.
It also continues not to find the cash to extend the W-League to a full home-and-away season (that we’re heading in to our seventh season and that this is still the case boggles the mind) and to actively nurture and develop women’s football in Australia – it was the fastest growing sport for women a few years ago, but without structure and development that figure has plateaued. Cricket, for instance, and a sport to which football is now intrinsically linked due to Ellyse Perry’s dual involvement, has been actively working to develop its women’s player and supporter base.
Sermanni had done some incredible work in creating solid Matildas foundations, bringing through new blood, and coaching the Matildas to their equal best World Cup Quarter Final appearance and their Asian Cup championship. De Reus undoubtedly has much to offer, and recording an upset 2–1 win over Brazil in the second friendly was our first glimpse of that. But I do feel, in my humble, in-expert opinion that she needs to shift her focus ever so slightly as the issues facing women’s football in Australia are complex, multifaceted, and extend far beyond whether national players are allowed out of the hotel for coffee.