Ex-Matildas coach Alen Stajcic is taking the Philippines to new heights

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<p><figcaption><span>Photograph: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA</span></figcaption></p>
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<p>It took 32 years for the Filipinas to reach the heights of the Women’s World Cup. But it took them just two matches to secure their first World Cup win, against co-hosts New Zealand on Tuesday.</p>
<p>The unexpected victory leaves the Philippines on the brink of the round of 16, if they can pull off another remarkable result on Sunday against Norway, a team featuring some of the best players in the world. But since he was appointed in late 2021, Filipinas coach Alen Stajcic – who formerly led the Matildas until a contentious exit ahead of the 2019 World Cup – has consistently delivered the unexpected.</p>
<p><span>Related: </span>‘We share blood’: The US-born players leading the Philippines’ World Cup charge</p>
<p>“This team was ranked in the 60s and 70s [in the Fifa rankings] a few months ago, and was struggling to beat Nepal and Hong Kong in a playoff,” Stajcic said after beating New Zealand, a victory he called “staggering and miraculous and unbelievable”. “What the players have done is just mind-blowing,” he said.</p>
<p>Stajcic was an unlikely appointment for the Filipinas. “Staj” has a long, relatively successful record in Australian football, including taking the Matildas to the quarter-finals of the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics and a well-regarded stint at A-League Men’s club the Central Coast Mariners.</p>
<p>Despite his storied past, the coach was quick to nominate the win over New Zealand as his greatest moment yet. “How can you beat that?” he said. “Beating the home nation in a World Cup – without question, it’s number one.”</p>
<p>It was a result that took Stajcic to tears – much as he might deny it. “It was very emotional out on pitch – seeing just about everyone, every staff member, every player crying,” he said. “They spilt their tears on my eyes – so if you saw any of that on me it was probably theirs.”</p>
<p>For Venice Furio, whose podcast Futbol Brew and website Pinay Futbol focus on women’s football in the Philippines, the win over New Zealand has been more than a decade in the making, as thy Filipinas struggled to overcome regional rivals Thailand and Vietnam and failed to qualify for major tournaments.</p>
<p>But since Stajcic arrived, the Filipinas’ rise has picked up speed. They reached the semi-finals of last year’s Asian Cup and won the AFF Women’s Championship. Now they are one win away from the World Cup knockout rounds.</p>
<p>“I think a lot of Filipinos are willing to build a statue for him,” Furio says, laughing. “The players love him, the fans love him – even the most passionate fans, the ultras, they have so much respect for him, they trust him. There’s nothing but praise. We give back the love he gives us.”</p>
<p><span>Related: </span>Sarina Bolden spoils New Zealand party and hands Philippines historic win</p>
<p>The team’s journey in New Zealand has captivated a nation where football, particularly women’s football, traditionally commands less interest than basketball. On the eve of the tournament not a single domestic broadcaster had secured the rights – now the Filipinas’ matches are being screened across the nation, including free screenings at dozens of major malls. “It’s crazy,” Furio says. “We went from no broadcaster to viewing parties all over the country.”</p>
<p>In a country where women’s sport remains on the periphery, Furio says she is excited about the lasting impact of the Filipinas’ success. “It’s a dream come true,” she says. “It’s important for the girls back home to have inspiration, to have players to look up to. Because for a while there was no one.”</p>
<p>The Philippines’ team is made up of a mix of Philippines-based players and diaspora Filipinos, some of whom ply their trade in the US and Australia. The blended nature of the team has drawn some criticism back home, given the extent of the playing squad born abroad (18 of the 23 Filipinas were born in the United States).</p>
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Stajcic’s Filipinas are on the brink of progressing to the last 16. Photograph: Molly Darlington/Reuters

It is, the writer and podcaster says, a double-standard. “They don’t mind if you’re a ‘halfie’ [in basketball],” she adds. But Furio believes the nation is beginning to celebrate the entire team. “I think at this point after the success, many back home are able to embrace them fully,” she says.

If the Filipinas win against Norway, they will guarantee progression to the round of 16. Should the parallel match of New Zealand against Switzerland finish level, the Philippines would top the group. If New Zealand lose, then even a draw against Norway would be enough to see the Philippines through.

Stajcic and his players are unlikely to be thinking that far ahead. On Thursday, after the biggest football victory in the nation’s history (“I don’t know if there’s been a bigger win – obviously [boxer Manny] Pacquiao individually, but for team sport?” the coach said), Stajcic was asked what he and the team would be doing to celebrate. Emotional Stajcic suddenly became serious Stajcic.

“Our team ethos has been the same for the last 18 months,” he said. “You win, lose or draw, we celebrate or cry until midnight, then the next day is a new day. Tomorrow it’s back to work.”

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