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Dr James Ilic - My Football Journey and The Women's World Cup!

Dr James Ilic - My Football Journey and The Women's World Cup!

Dr James Ilic recently attended a FIFA Emergency Medical Course at FIFA HQ in Zurich!

Dr Ilic alongside Dr Janet Young, will play important roles in next months FIFA Women's World Cup, being held in Australia! 

SASMA recently spoke with James about his long history in football, and more on his role at the upcoming tournament!

SASMA: How did you get involved with Sports Medicine?

Dr JI: I was doing medicine at the time and had an interest in sport. It was a fairly embryonic area of medicine in those days. I developed an interest and joined the (then) SMA Sports Medicine Clinic on South Terrace, alongside Terry Farquharson, Greg Lovell, and a few physios, including Andrew Clarkson. My involvement then evolved from that, linking with the group at Hindmarsh with Brian Sando and a few others who then formed what became the Wakefield Sports Clinic with many of the guys and myself from South Terrace.

SASMA: How did you get your foot in the door with Football in particular?

Dr JI: Initially myself and Mike Woodcock got involved with West Adelaide Sharks in the old National Soccer League (NSL). We were asked by the club as they weren’t happy with their current services, which at the time were almost negligible, and if we would like to get involved. It evolved from there.

Our coaches, Raul Blanco, who went on to coach the Olyroos (Olympic Football Team) and was an assistant coach with Australian National Team. Additionally, Adrian Santrac, was then appointed Matildas coach in 2001 and he asked if I would like to be the team doctor, in those days the Matildas were not the recognised brand they are today!

SASMA: Am I right in saying Sports Medicine was not a prominent division of medicine at the time?

Dr JI: At the time, it was just GP’s that had an interest in sport. Brian Sando and Peter Barnes were at the forefront of that change of going from ‘having an interest’, to being principally what your profession was. Peter and Brian took that pathway and went on to significant roles in the industry.

That is how it evolved and I came in around that time when it was changing. Through an interest in Sports Medicine, I worked with West Adelaide, before the Matildas I was involved with Sydney 2000 Olympics and the Olyroos, sharing the role with another guy in Canberra. Adrian was Assistant Coach with the Olyroos (Olympics) at the time before his appointment to the Matildas the following year.

My involvement with the Matildas spanned for over 20 years, I formally retired in June 2022, following the COVID pandemic. Through that period, travel became just not manageable, every trip we were faced with time in quarantine and restrictions. Trips to Europe and other countries were cancelled, each tournament you would be forced to wait until last minute to know whether you were going or not! So, it got to point that for a number of reasons I thought I am done with travelling. I very much still enjoyed my involvement with the group, but it became too complex, for example the Olympics would have had me away for five months, including the trip itself and the quarantine that came with it.

So, I decided to focus on local football, which was Adelaide United. I have been involved with Adelaide since they started in the A-League in 2003, they existed for one year in the NSL prior to that before Football Australia closed the NSL and the A-League was formed, I have been with them ever since, this includes the Men’s, Women’s and Youth teams. The A-League arrangement is that the team doctor doesn’t travel interstate, with the exception of finals – which is nice!

SASMA: How did the WWC involvement come up, did they call you out of retirement?

Dr JI: They did, I was retired only in terms of travelling internationally. I was asked by Pip Inge, the Australian Medical Head of WWC organisation.  Pip has also been involved with cricket and worked with Kate Beerworth (physiotherapist) and Kate was involved with Matildas for a long time as well. Kate spoke to me and then Pip rang and asked for me to come on board.

Jo Fernandes, Head of Competition for the WWC, was Team Manager with the Matildas as well for a number of years, she asked me also and I thought it would be great to be involved again with international football… without any travel!

Initially, I was going to be a liaison person for visiting teams. China and Panama are based here, Adelaide has four group stage matches and one round-of-sixteen game. I would have been the liaison officer for those based here, so if China (for example) had an injury, I would coordinate who they go to for imaging, orthopaedic surgeons, whatever it may have been, I would’ve organised that sector.

As FIFA have two positions in any city for a major tournament, this then progressed to being asked instead to be the FIFA Venue Medical Coordinator, based on my long experience with Women’s football, I agreed and said yes that would be great!

So now, instead, I am focused entirely on the venue, being Hindmarsh Stadium, and the on-field injuries for the two teams, coaching staff and personnel. The Team Doctors will manage most of the injuries, but anything major – major trauma, cardiac arrest, that sort of thing – is what the FIFA Field of Play Team manages, which is myself. Included in my role is speaking to and working with the Team Doctors and having been a Team Doctor for 20+ years, I would have been more than happy for FIFA to be there and take over!

As part of this role, I attended a FIFA Emergency Medicine Course in April this year, held at the FIFA Headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland. I was joined by two other Australians who will be heavily involved with the World Cup, Andrew Jowett (Victoria) and Shane Brun (Queensland). There were 16 people there from around the world for the two-day intensive course, which is similar to the ALS (Advanced Life Support) Course, however there is always a specific FIFA way of doing things! FIFA’s protocols are very precise and ensure that it can be universally followed, meaning no matter where you are in the world, these skills and processes can be applied. In addition to the two-day course there was a 216-page manual I had to familiarise myself with as well as completing an exam at the end!

The other liaison role that I was originally asked to do, Janet Young is now doing. The plan is that everything tournament related will be run through the Calvary Adelaide Hospital complex, Orthopaedic Surgeons, Neurologists, Sports Cardiologists and the 24-hour Emergency Department will be involved. CAH is the FIFA preferred hospital, any injuries to players, coaches, support networks, VIPs will all come through here initially. When FIFA delegates visited Adelaide to ‘tick’ off Hindmarsh Stadium, they also visited CAH to ensure it was compliant with their requirements.

SASMA: Out of interest, what did they think of Hindmarsh when they visited?

Dr JI: They will make it work, it’s an old stadium which has a restricted footprint unfortunately and they can’t do much with it! They have, however, done up the Eastern stands and added corporate boxes which is great, the pitch has always been excellent. Spectator numbers will always be limited by the surrounding streets. Melbourne and Sydney have the luxury of prominent rugby/football (soccer) stadiums that can be used for large events!

SASMA: Do you have any highlights or challenges you have experienced over the years with international football?

Dr JI: I have been to five (Women’s) World Cups, three Olympics Games and a multitude of Asian Cups and other international events. In my role however, I have always been mindful of having a job to do and that you are there as a doctor, not as a supporter, and I have tried to strictly abide by this. I always have left that side of it to the players and staff to enjoy, you have to keep emotion well and truly out of it and focus on doing your job properly. Also adhering to the principle of if someone is injured, they are not available, that’s the final decision, regardless of if the person is the best player!

This is a common theme around elite sports, of course you are happy when they win but that’s not your objective!

Regarding medical challenges, there have been plenty of them around the world, I think we visited over 40 countries throughout the journey. Some have very interesting medical facilities which can certainly be challenging. You try and plan to have most things you need available and prepare for getting very little from the place you visit, sometimes, of course, you need their services but the standard varies massively.

SASMA: What would you recommend to someone who is beginning their sport medicine journey, and wanting to work in elite sport?

Dr JI: It is important to work your way up, start off with an amateur club and spend time learning how to be a team doctor. There is an expectation for a lot of people to step straight in to professional teams, it is a demanding environment and requires a lot of time. You certainly want to have very good sports medicine knowledge, have some reasonable team experience before looking at a professional team. This experience puts you in a better position to make appropriate medical decisions. Marc Cesana (Adelaide Crows) and Mark Fisher (Port Adelaide), for example, have gone through a long journey to get where they are now and would be comfortable in their role and making critical decisions.

SASMA: Is there anything following the World Cup you are looking forward to, or anything you could like to still achieve?

Dr JI: My involvement with Adelaide United will continue, however once you are in the ‘FIFA Pool’, theoretically, you remain in the pool! Potentially you could be invited to cover FIFA Tournaments in Oceania and Asia.

I enjoy the job still and have no intentions of retiring… as I am not sure what I would do!

I still enjoy sports medicine and sport in general, the combination works well! I am hoping to do it for as long as I am able.

SASMA: Do you have any final comments, sports medicine in general, your involvement with SASMA?

Dr JI: I have been involved with SMA/SASMA for over 30 years, it is a great organisation and it is wonderful to have a wide medical representation – surgeons, physios, massage therapists, sports trainers.

I am still involved as well with football and the Woodville West Torrens Football Club in the SANFL as well as the Australian Men’s Beach and Indoor Volleyball programs, I don’t travel as they take a physiotherapist with the team.

These roles, alongside football and clinic commitments take up most of my time!

Additionally, a lot of the Australian public I don’t think understand how big of an event this (WWC) is, on a national and global scale. The Men’s World Cup is no doubt the biggest sporting event on the planet, but the Women’s World Cup is rapidly increasing in size. In the early days, it cost FIFA a large amount of money to run the WWC, however times are changing. I recently went to a talk with the CEO of Football Australia who made comment in saying the last AFL Grand Final had a viewing audience of three million and the previous WWC, in comparison, was 280 million, this year’s tournament is expected to be well over 300 million.

It will be interesting to see what impact this has on young kids making choices in sport, for the growth of the sport in Australia we need the Matilda’s to go as deep in to the tournament as possible!

Cover Image courtesy of Getty Images -

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