Two men stole the show in season thirteen of the A-League. One, a quietly spoken and constantly smiling Serb, the other a steely eyed and intense Kosovar.
While many players produced outstanding goals and moments across the season, it ultimately and aptly came down to a Sky Blues versus Victory showdown with the two men in question likely to play key roles.
This was exactly the way things panned out with Besart Berisha scoring early. Milos Ninkovic would, however, have the last laugh. His spot kick after the two hours of drama and intrigue that rated through the roof, put us all in lather.
Both men had seasons to remember. Berisha passing the 100-goal mark, winning the golden boot for the second time and debuting for Kosovo in a qualifier against Iceland, in what was a proud moment for the passionate striker.
Ninkovic took the Johnny Warren Medal by the length of the straight, both statistically and aesthetically, scored nine goals of his own and passed the ball with a skill and dexterity rarely seen on our shores.
My pleasure levels while watching either, are equal. They are what football is really all about. One, the mastermind who sees avenues to goal of which more mortals can only dream, the other a sharp marksman who puts the ‘c’ in clinical.
Perhaps their greatest gift is their versatility, they both, in fact, can mimic each other’s roles at times. Berisha’s hard work off the ball and his skill in providing for others is underrated and Ninkovic can finish as neatly and emphatically as most.
They are thus, both pure footballers. Adaptable, instinctive and opportunistic, as well as precise in their execution of structured attack.
They are the modern professional personified, men from all corners of the globe landing in foreign countries to ply their trade, while grappling with language, culture and adapting to a new league and style of football.
To do it as well as they have is impressive and commendable.
Their skills and effectiveness are worth celebrating, yet there is something more compelling when juxtaposing the two champions. They represent the broad diversity that exists in our game. Not from a nationalistic or cultural point of view, more from a human point of view.
Their on-field personas, while potentially not reflective of the one they display in their family and private lives, are diametrically opposed. They are like chalk and cheese on the field and the contrast is beautiful.
Ninkovic’s smile could melt a mother’s heart, something akin to a young boy returning to his home town, successful, happy and content, as his mum stands at the door, proud of her son. His demeanour oozes of a love of life and football and his soft innocent smile is part of his charm.
Contrastingly, Berisha’s footballing expression is one of intensity and determination. He stares through an official or an opponent, as if something rather nasty is about to happen, something of a cross between Hannibal Lecter and the count from Sesame Street.
It is a sinister and threatening look that is echoed by his cold and lethal effectiveness up front.
The juxtaposition says volumes about the game and the different styles and approaches that can be taken towards it and the reason the word beauty is attached to football when describing it.
They even celebrate differently. Ninkovic with a sort of ‘Aw shucks guys’, filled with humility and perspective that endears him to fans and teammates.
There isn’t a footballer on the planet who could honestly say they dislike scoring a goal, yet the Serbian does appear to deflect adoration away and enjoy the collective celebration of a goal more than his personal statistical achievement. The words ‘selfish’ and ‘Ninkovic’ don’t go together.
Berisha is a different kettle of fish and just as impressive. The grand final strike was a wonderful example of his awareness of the stage and his role in the performance. Besart knows exactly how good he is, what the moment means and seemingly, where the cameras are.
With arm aloft, mouth agape and fist clenched, Berisha performs his celebration something like a matador. All the while, the wide eyed stare remains and penetrates everyone who steps in its path.
Easily mistaken for an angry man, the Kosovar plays with an intensity and passion that exists throughout the contest, not just when things look grim. Even a goal celebration that establishes a comfortable lead in a match is executed with a venom and purpose.
Whether it be Round 1 or Round 23, the eighth minute or injury time, to Berisha, it always means something. I guess that is where one hundred and two A-League goals come from: professionalism, determination and persistence.
The class of the two men is unquestionable, yet it is a different sort of class. The game allows for quality to be seen in so many different ways.
As Ninkovic plays Mr nice guy, befriending fans and gaining respect from fellow professionals with his gentle and stealth demeanour, Berisha shirt fronts the game, man handles the occasion and imposes himself on the contest.
It is so different yet equally as beautiful. Both men will reflect on the season of successes and be well pleased. The slight emptiness of a heart-breaking loss will surely linger with Berisha for a little while to come.
However, one can’t help but expect him to work just that little bit harder, play that little bit tougher and train that little bit longer in order to lead his team to another finals campaign in 2018.
The Sydney FC midfielder will once again, have an impressive supporting cast at his disposal and will have the exact same intention.
How lucky we are to be able to see them do it all again. Football allows it, encourages it. In a sporting world of clones and by-the-numbers development of players, the world game always presents a versatility and variation in strategy and style.
But even more importantly, it presents us with people.