Good vibes, great games: A-League, W-League building something special in 2021

It's one of the biggest developments to hit Australian football in years: the A-League and W-League are outrageously fun. Alou Kuol levels of fun.

This shouldn't seem remarkable. Sporting leagues providing consumers with a product that's actually enjoyable is ostensibly about as praiseworthy as as a student spelling their name correctly on an examination -- more of an expectation than anything. Yet coming off what has been a mercilessly punishing 12 months for Australian football, that fans are seemingly replacing a well earned sense of cynical fatalism with optimism is a testament to the remarkable scenes playing out in the Australian top-flight right now.

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Naive? Possibly. But with the leagues given as close to a blank template as they're ever going to get, thanks to newly won independence and a soft-COVID reset, it's a refreshing and soul cleansing change of pace.

Driven by improvised squads and newly conjured storylines, the games and moments between are mostly delivering. Maybe hope, tempestuous and fragile as it is, should be allowed to bloom.

Is absolutely everything better than it was this time last year? Of course not. Leagues don't lose quality like Ellie Carpenter, Ola Toivonen, Alanna Kennedy and Adam Le Fondre and simply carry on as though nothing has changed.

But judgements of the Australian top-flight based solely upon pure technicalility have always been disingenuous. Instead, the A-League and W-League's value as a spectacle are born from being greater than the sum of parts: A minimum level of on-field quality invigorated by narrative, excitement, intrigue, silliness, potential, local pride, and atmosphere.

The youth movement

Reflective of broader trends of stagnation around the game, Australian fans had become increasingly disillusioned with perceived recycling of veteran, "proven performers" in recent years, as well unimaginative foreign recruitment and inherent conservatism in squad composition.

Where, the question was, was generation next?

Well apparently, they were waiting for a confluence of economic, market and infrastructural challenges to create a perfect storm to incentivise, cajole or outright force clubs to tap into the ranks of their youth.

Once restricted to intermittent cameos or the ranks of youth teams, players like Carlo Armiento at Perth Glory, Denis Genreau at Macarthur FC and Dylan Wenzel-Halls at Brisbane Roar have all burst forth in 2020-21 -- adding creativity, spark and presence that they've long been capable of, but never got the chance to show.

At league-leading Sydney FC, attacking W-League triumvirate Remy Siemsen, Cortnee Vine and Princess Ibini have started and won every game this season. Given increased scope and responsibility, and thriving with their subsequent reaction, they've emerged at the vanguard of a potential new supply line of Matildas for new national team boss Tony Gustavsson.

Similar could be said for the likes of Wenzel-Halls and Nicholas D'Agostino for Graham Arnold and the Socceroos.

Not only are these players holding their own and in some cases significantly outperforming the veterans around them, but excitement carried by the unknown potential of youth, the new stories to learn and fresh matchups to observe have proven infectiously invigorating.

Rare is talk of youth as a marketable asset, but as Richard Scudamore -- who helped turn the Premier League into a financial juggernaut during his time as an executive between 1999 and 2018 -- made it clear to A-League clubs in 2019 when he was employed to consult on their transition to independence, a lack of conversation doesn't necessarily reflect a lack of validity.

"What you need to build is club loyalty," Scudamore said. "Homegrown is still the most exciting thing ... the holy grail is the local boy made good because they are your best asset."

In a world where actual, ticket-moving marquees are rare -- and those that Australian clubs could afford even rarer -- the emotional bond between fans and "one of their own" is proving its worth in 2020-21.

Stories to tell

But as Scott Jamieson would (rightly) tell you, clubs are in the winning games business, not daycare. Good thing, then, that this season's value has come from more than just kids.

Though they're missing the marquee names and mainstream interest, the entertainment value of the A-League and W-League in 2020-21 has nonetheless already won comparisons to previous peaks: packaging emotional or intellectual inducements to engage via an entertaining combination of unpredictability, skill, chaos, storyline and intrigue.

Across games, momentum has consistently swung, goals have been scored in bunches, unlikely heroes have emerged, a local cast and crew largely retained and records set. The playing field levelled by circumstance, the more cash-poor clubs are better able to take a punch and the top end of town are being made to work.

Occasionally, the circus even comes to town.

Between fixtures, overarching themes and stories have emerged that, though grounded in football, have an ability to appeal to much deeper narrative instincts and tropes. These, in turn, provide the lifeblood of a professional sport: debate, discussion and controversy.

In an arc of betrayal or destiny -- depending on your colours -- Wanderers boss Carl Robinson's birthed a new rivalry with his surprise switch from Newcastle to Western Sydney just months out from the season, while a personal feud (gloriously) bubbled to the surface between Stefan Mauk and Neil Kilkenny during Perth's 2-1 win over Adelaide United on Friday. In Queensland, a former NPL coach in Warren Moon has succeeded a veritable football legend in Robbie Fowler and one-upped him: reinvigorating the Roar into one of the best teams to watch in the league.

Throwing off the shackles of age, beloved Matildas Michelle Heyman and Lisa De Vanna are undergoing renaissance-arcs in their 30s, but City's glittering W-League empire -- caught wrong-footed -- is seemingly crumbling less than a season after finding no more worlds to conquer. The coming 2023 Women's World Cup also shines like a beacon of potential, as well as a powerful incentive to improve and grow.

In Mark Rudan vs. VAR and Fox Sports' camera setup, we've even busted out a conflict of man vs. machine already and in Melbourne City's Paddy Kisnorbo and Victory's Grant Brebner, faint hints of man vs. time are emerging.

And then there's the Central Coast Mariners.

The Gosford-based side finished bottom of the A-League four of the past five seasons entering 2020-21 and, downtrodden by years of malaise, the picturesque stands at Central Coast Stadium were becoming increasingly barren. Up for sale by owner Mike Charlesworth and having had a rocky relationship with local government, speculation on if the club's licence would be relocated out of Gosford by a new owner was widespread.

Flash forward to six weeks in and Alen Stajcic's side have won five of their seven games -- the same as their 2019-20 total -- and sit atop the A-League. While there's some level of fortune at work, they're playing with bravery, aggression and fierce determination and have beaten title-favourites Sydney FC and Melbourne City. Only Brisbane and Perth have scored more goals.

And in Kuol, they're led in scoring by a 19-year-old refugee that, despite dominating for his local club in Shepparton at a Victorian semi-pro level less than two years ago, couldn't even get a youth contract with any of the three Melbourne clubs. Now, scoring 1.47 goals every 90 minutes, he's seemingly incapable of not producing magic every time he's on the ball, on camera, or handed a microphone. His infectious personality and fearless -- and joyful -- style of play have made every moment he's on the pitch appointment viewing.

It's a story that sounds like it's been produced by the pen of a two-bit Hollywood script writer -- every underdog cliche packed into one yellow and blue avatar to ensure every viewer had something to relate to.

But in 2020-21, it's real.

So what now?

Ultimately, potential without action is a worth little and Australian football is nothing if not well-practised at squandering a sense of momentum and promise -- the phrase "sleeping giant" comes to mind.

Looking forward, the competition's long-standing, recently tuba-marred, deal with broadcaster Fox Sports is set to conclude in the coming months, and while the A-League and W-League might be hitting a lot of the right notes emotionally, it's history of low ratings don't place it in the strongest position at the negotiating table. Previous partner Hyundai having stepped away last offseason, the A-League also lacks a naming rights sponsor.

Frayed to the point of almost breaking over the past half a decade, the relationship between fans and the league's administrators and reinvigoration of active support will be vital post-COVID. Though it's primarily the purview of Football Australia and not the independent leagues, a greater connection of football at all levels of the Australian system through structural reforms remains a pressing priority -- and not something that should be impeded for the sake of a few private owners profits.

Mirroring the recent talks in Major League Soccer, fraught negotiations over the salary cap and the league's future will again likely feature in coming CBA negotiations. Players having made sacrifices to keep the league afloat during the tough times will demand recompense for doing their part to subsequently revive it.

This season's opening, nonetheless, has given A-League and W-League fans reasons to believe that the best is yet to come. The immediate question is if a way can be found to let everyone else know about it -- and use this momentum to drive the game to the next level.