A-League Grand Final showcases what's great about Australian football
Reports of the A-League's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
For some time, Australia's top-flight club competition has come in for heavy criticism. Pundits, punters and even players have had a dig at the game's governance and stunted growth. Indeed, the lion's share of disapproval has come from within football's own ranks. Those outside it have been content to ignore the league altogether -- with average attendance figures declining since 2014 and general hype fading, it's been impossible to persuade them otherwise.
That is until last weekend. The semifinals this year were action-packed, drama-filled masterpieces, demonstrating at once the power of football to unite people whilst toying with their emotions.
Riley McGree set the internet alight on Friday night when he scored with an outrageous Rene Higuita-esque scorpion kick to equalise for Newcastle against Melbourne City. Homegrown hero Jason Hoffman then sealed the come-from-behind win, confirming the regional city as host of this week's Grand Final.
The result: Newcastle is positively buzzing. The Grand Final sold out in mere minutes, with countless more fans unable to secure in-demand tickets.
After enduring a decade of heartbreak since their last Grand Final, the team from the Hunter is set to host the most anticipated league game since Alessandro Del Piero arrived in Australia six years ago.
There, they will face the indefatigable Melbourne Victory, who, after 120 minutes of gripping football, were able to overcome arch foes Sydney FC for the first time in nine attempts. The unbelievable turbulence of the contest was exemplified by Terry Antonis. The Victory midfielder was distraught after scoring an own goal to send the game into extra time, before being reduced to tears of joy -- and relief -- upon netting the winner just as penalties appeared inevitable.
It was a weekend to remember, for all the right reasons.
Of course, these magnificent matches do not erase the errors that have halted the A-League's development, nor do they, in isolation, resolve the game's future. Instead, they highlight all there is to love about football, breaking a habitual cycle of cynicism.
Indeed, it would have been hard not to enjoy the last couple of weeks of A-League action. For all its flaws, football can still deliver the energy, drama and enthusiasm that other codes struggle to match. What the A-League thrives on is energy as a collective which -- finally -- is starting to return to the competition.
Newcastle may become the first team in any major sport in Australia to rise from the bottom of the league one season to become champions the next. A true fairytale.
Victory, meanwhile, are eager to build on their remarkable winning culture, with a triumph set to give them more championships than any other team in A-League history.
This, quite simply, was the Grand Final the A-League -- and its critics -- were so desperate for. It's here. Let's enjoy it. And let's give back the energy and enthusiasm the game has given us over the past seven days.
Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks