'We made the country proud': Milicic reflects on massive year for Westfield Matildas
The Westfield Matildas ability to ‘make the country proud’ and their exploits at the FIFA Women’s World Cup were just a couple of the positives for Ante Milicic from a whirlwind 2019.
After starting the year as a scout for the Caltex Socceroos, Milicic was appointed as the Westfield Matildas Head Coach in February.
He oversaw Australia’s win in the inaugural Cup of Nations on home soil before guiding the Westfield Matildas to the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019™ in France in June.
While Australia were knocked out in the Round of 16 in a heartbreaking penalty shootout against Norway, Milicic looks back at the competition with fond memories.
For Milicic, the rousing come-from-behind win over Brazil and Sam Kerr’s four-goal haul against Jamaica are iconic moments of the tournament, which could inspire the next crop of young Aussie stars.
“It was an honour to take the national team side to the World Cup, a great experience for all players, staff, supporters and the football community,” Milicic said.
“You’re coaching your national team at a World Cup and seeing the girls enjoy themselves, playing with a smile on their face, representing our country and [seeing] our colours in the stand.
“A come-from-behind victory against Brazil, an Australian player scoring four goals at a World Cup – Sam against Jamaica – they’re a couple of things that stand out that we should be proud of.
“I think just the way the girls handled themselves and made the country proud, it’s no secret how well loved they are and when you’re around the group particularly in a foreign country it’s pleasing to see.”
But the ever-competitive Milicic is always looking for the next challenge and 2020 looms as just as big for the Westfield Matildas.
The next couple of months will be vital for Milicic and his players with the Tokyo Olympic Games qualifiers on the horizon in February.
After the recent progress in the women’s game, Milicic can only see an exponential growth year by year, week by week and day by day in women’s football worldwide.
“The investment on and off the field for the women’s game both at club and international, it’s clear to see,” Milicic said.
“The way the game is moving quickly and the excitement around it, you see all the investment in the European clubs and what they’re doing, now everyone wants to be a part of it.
“That’s been the most significant difference from the previous World Cup to this one, the popularity and the level has gone up.
“I think the growth from, say four years ago, from the previous World Cup to this one has gone at such a steep incline that I’m not sure if many were aware of it, to what extent it was at.
“There’s a lot happening in the women’s game [in Australia] with the new pay deal and the launch of our  World Cup bid also, so there's a lot of positivity going on around the group as we look to focus and prepare now for the new year, which we know we’ve got a difficult qualifying route for the Olympic Games in Japan.
“We’re looking at qualifying for the Olympics but qualifying playing the right brand of football, qualifying playing the Australian way.
“It’s very important for this group and for the women’s game in our country to make sure we maintain a high level, and that we get this qualification period right in the next few months so that lays the platform for the rest of the year.”
Taking the top job in women’s football in Australia was a big step for Milicic but he has not missed a beat, learning a lot about himself and the women’s game in what’s been a testing and rewarding year.
“The year started off well for me in a role that I enjoyed,” Milicic said.
“I started the year working as a scout for the Socceroos in the Asian Cup in the UAE.
“I really enjoyed being at that tournament and watching the Socceroos play but also keeping an eye on their upcoming opponents.
“Then after that I was approached about the interest for the Matildas job, and after going through the interview process I was successful.
“That was a new, exciting challenge that came at the right time for me. Obviously a big job, but with the tour of the US coming up and a World Cup in Europe I got pretty excited about it.”
It was an exciting prospect, but a daunting one nonetheless for Milicic as he ventured into women’s football for the first time in his career – in a FIFA Women's World Cup year at that.
But Milicic couldn’t be happier with his decision to take the plunge.
“I knew walking into the job under the circumstances that it was going to be a difficult challenge – and that’s what I wanted,” Milicic said.
“It’s a new landscape for me; I came in fresh with no preconceived ideas.
“I got to put across my playing style to the group but also to work with a new group of players and a new group of staff in such a short period of time and get them to a level where I can honestly say I’m really pleased with the environment we created.
“Getting to know a whole new group of players but a whole new league, learning about the opposition players and countries and coaches and the dynamics of the women’s game. For me it’s actually been really refreshing.”