Wanderers fans out in force against Sydney FC. (Image: @wswanderersfc - Twitter)

In the past few years, Australian football has been synonymous with what has felt like a constant barrage of negativity.

The A-Leagues have had to deal with COVID-19 and other situations out of their control that has affected the enjoyment of the sport in the country.

In the past month, the A-League Men competition has been building in quality, crowds, and overall product.

On the weekend, exciting events in the Australian domestic and international scenes combined to give fans a renewed sense of optimism that the code can begin taking strides towards improvement once again.

The Originals rediscover a spark

The weekend’s action kicked off at Coopers Stadium on Friday night as Adelaide United hosted old rivals Melbourne Victory. Historically, this fixture has produced fireworks, but for the sides involved it has felt like the rivalry had slightly lost some of the edge that made it so special over the years.

As Friday’s game was approaching, Reds fans were advised to expect a bumper crowd, with two sides of the stadium sold out, which does not happen often. The attendance ended up being 13,504, the highest A-League Men figure at the venue since October 2016, and the raucous crowd brought colour and noise in what ended up being an entertaining encounter.

On the night, the Reds trounced Victory by three goals in a strong showing of intent, but regardless of the result, a packed Coopers Stadium filled with joyous fans was a sight for sore eyes in a country that is crying out for appropriately sized venues. This encounter foreshadowed the re-emergence of a feel-good attitude about Australian football that was clearly evident by the end of the weekend.

Matildas waltz into ominous form

The next day, the Matildas returned to Melbourne for the first time since 2019 to face Sweden, a side ranked as the second-best national team in the world and overwhelming favourites on the day.

Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson has been heavily criticized in the past, but on Saturday his side produced a performance to remember against his country of origin.

The Matildas did not only compete against Sweden, they dominated when it came to taking their chances. Sam Kerr and Mary Fowler’s goals bookending a Caitlin Foord brace to give the 22 thousand-strong home crowd a day to remember and cause for optimism in the future.

Along with a strong victory, fans were also overjoyed to see young players like Charlie Grant (21 years old), Mary Fowler (19 years old), Courtney Nevin (20 years old), and Kyra Cooney-Cross (20 years old) start against quality opposition and perform in a comprehensive team win.

Whereas there’s been an excitement for the World Cup to be hosted in Australia, a couple of years of inconsistency have built up pessimism amongst Matildas fans about their own team’s performance.

Commanding victories like the one at AAMI Park on Saturday improve the belief and morale of fans less than a year from hosting a tournament of global significance and days away from the A-League Women’s competition commencing.

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Sydney divided has everyone excited

When Sydney FC legend Miloš Ninković defected to arch-rivals Western Sydney Wanderers, everyone’s attention automatically turned towards the Sydney Derby.

With Western Sydney underperforming and Sydney FC dominating the league in the last half a decade, this rivalry had become a one-sided affair, but the resurgent Wanderers along with the attraction of a newly-rebuilt Allianz Stadium and the Ninković storyline rekindled the inferno.

34 thousand people showed up on the big day and both sets of fans had a message of hostility toward the opposition. Sydney FC’s Cove produced an impressive tifo featuring club legends Steve Corica, Rhyan Grant, and Andrew Redmayne with the message, “legends are cherished, traitors’ legacies will perish,” directed towards defector Miloš Ninković. Meanwhile, the Wanderers’ RBB had a much simpler tifo with the message, “new nest, same rats,” directed to their rivals and their new home.

A hot-and-cold match was elevated by the two passionate supporter bases before Ninković, the man of the hour, set up Kusini Yengi for his first goal for the club which turned out to be the winner on the evening.

Wanderers fans were overjoyed to celebrate with Ninkovic post-game as disgusted Sydney fans looked on in despair. This flame is back and we have not seen the last of the two bitter rivals this season.

The competition is only as strong as its most attractive games and if Saturday night was anything to go by, fans are returning and they are becoming invested once again. The challenge is now to maintain a consistent level of support week in, week out.

The future impresses in the present

The aforementioned Matildas were not the only young stars to show their quality this weekend. The final week of A-League Men action before the World Cup break saw stars of the future around the league take the reigns and impress in the present.

On Friday night, Adelaide United’s Ethan Alagich received his first start under the bright lights of Coopers Stadium in the Original Rivalry. Despite being inexperienced, the youngster played a pivotal role in Carl Veart’s side’s success.

Miloš Ninković was the ex-Sydney-turned-Wanderer midfielder that the spotlight was on in the leadup to the Derby, but it was Calem Nieuwenhof that caught the eyes in the centre of the park.

The young midfielder worked tirelessly in a crucial position while on the biggest stage of his career to earn his new side a win. The 21-year-old’s performance was so effective that it left Wanderers coach Marko Rudan questioning why it was so easy to pry him away from Sydney FC in his post-match press conference.

It feels like the Australian football community is running out of superlatives to describe Garang Kuol, and for good reason too.

On Sunday afternoon, days after being announced in Graham Arnold’s World Cup squad, Kuol came off the bench to score twice for a Mariners side playing with 10 men to further increase the hype surrounding him after his move to Newcastle United and his Socceroos selection. It is also important to mention that the match was won by 19-year-old Macarthur player Jed Drew in his first A-League Men start.

The exciting play by young players over the weekend was only a taster of what the next generation is capable of and it should become even more evident as more opportunities are handed out.

Australian football often feels like it is in a perpetual state of crisis, but a weekend like the one we have just experienced proves that the code has potential in this country which must be capitalised on. As the A-League Men goes on break for the World Cup, the A-League Women competition is kicking off to continue the excitement around football.

After the A-League Men season recommences following the World Cup break, fans will return to the stands with an appetite for football.

Clubs and the A-Leagues must work together to ensure they do their utmost best when it comes to the overall quality of the experience, on and off the field, to keep engagement levels high and the sport on an upwards trajectory.

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