“For the next two years, I can say that I will be an Australian. I’m starting a splendid and fantastic adventure. I couldn’t have chosen a better situation or a better place. We touched all the continents. This choice is far away in terms of kilometres but it’s very close in terms of philosophy. … I can’t wait to go and discover a country that everyone describes to me as fantastic.”
That was Alessandro Del Piero during a press conference in Turin confirming his decision to sign a two-year contract with A-League outfit, Sydney FC. Del Piero’s $2m per season is the most lucrative contract in Australia’s four footballing codes (Rugby Union, Rugby League and AFL making up the remaining three).
The signing of Del Piero represents a significant coup for both Sydney FC and the under-fire A-League. Only months ago, Harry Kewell, the former darling of Australian football, walked away from a three-year $6m contract after a solitary season back in his homeland. When he joined Melbourne Victory 12 months earlier, the event was heralded as the beginning of a new era for Australian football. Sadly, this proved to be a false dawn. Accompanied with the Gold Coast FC debacle, where the A-League revoked owner Clive Palmer’s licence, last season was one to forget Down Under.
As the A-League moves into it’s eighth season, it is hoped that the acquisition of 37 year-old Del Piero will prove to be a catalyst in a bigger and brighter future. Sydney FC have done their part as they could not have signed a bigger name. The Italian legend largely played his entire senior career with the grand Old Lady of Italy – Juventus. In a glittering career, he has won six Scudettos (originally eight before two were scratched off after Italy’s infamous 2006 Calciopoli match fixing scandal) and three Coppa Italia’s. He has played in four Champions League finals, triumphing once. He is also the highest capped Juventus player in history plus is the Bianconeri’s all-time top scorer with 290 goals.
Internationally, he has won over 90 caps and is the Azzurri’s fourth highest goal scorer. His playing career has not always been golden as he was made a scapegoat in Italy after they lost 2-1 to France in the final of Euro 2000. With Italy winning 1-0, Del Piero was guilty of spurning two good opportunities to make the game safe and was later criticised by the ever-judgemental Italian media. However, at the 2006 World Cup, Del Piero came off the bench in the semi-final against Germany, scoring the second goal in a 2-0 win, to put Italy in the final. Italy and Del Piero then found redemption as they overcame the French on penalties (where Del Piero scored) to become World Champions.
He joins a list of other international stars who have tried their luck in the A-League. Dwight Yorke, Juninho, Romario and Robbie Fowler, amongst others, have played recently in Australia. Dwight Yorke was probably the only player to make a real impact but he only lasted one season, preferring a return to Premiership rather than honour the final year of his two-year deal.
Del Piero is a different gravy to these players. At his peak, he was a world-class player, with Diego Maradona famously commenting that he would rather have Del Piero in his side than the magnificent Zinedine Zidane. When Juventus were relegated, he encouraged the team to stay together and get the club promoted. The likes of Italian World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lilian Thuram and Patrick Vieira were not interested and jumped ship. Del Piero stayed true to his words, captained the team and led by example, scoring 23 goals in 37 appearances. Juve gained instant promotion back to Serie A.
Admired off the pitch, almost as much as on the pitch, he has won awards for his charity work and has been a torch-bearer at the Winter Olympics. Sponsors love him and he has also performed in Italian television comedy sketches.
He was adamant that he would play for Juventus until he reached 40 but last season it became apparent that he was not going to be offered a new contract. In light of this, Il Fenomeno Vero was not short of offers – all over the world. Del Piero got his thinking cap on and decided that Australia was the best destination. ”Sydney is fascinating and different for many reasons. I want to explore a new country, a new continent,” he said. ”There was no better option than this, thank you Sydney FC and everyone in Australia. I’m excited on beginning my journey with Sydney FC.
Essentially the masterplan for Del Piero is to raise the profile of the A-League – as he referred to his move as ”Project Sydney”. Sydney FC chairman Scott Barlow added it was a landmark day for the club, “This signing is a major coup for Sydney FC, and marks a historic day for football in this country,” he said. “This is for all Australian football fans.”
By comparison, David Beckham’s impact with LA Galaxy in the MLS is the benchmark. The MLS has always commanded more publicity than the A-League but then again, it was established over a decade before the A-League. Simon Fuller, Beckham’s business partner and manager said “When David and I discussed making the move from Real Madrid to the LA Galaxy back in 2007, our minds were firmly focused on the massive opportunity of helping to grow soccer in the United States. We have made great progress over the past five years in raising the profile of soccer domestically and the MLS on a worldwide stage, and we are encouraged by all the results. However, clearly this is an on-going mission and this new deal (two-year contract signed earlier this year) confirms our commitment to continuing our journey and making sure the world’s biggest sport, soccer, continues to grow in the world’s most passionate sports loving nation, the USA.”
If Australia is to follow suit and blossom, the mindset of Del Piero, Sydney FC and the A-League must be consistent. However, there are two significant obstacles which the A-League must overcome. Finance and geography.
Financially, the MLS has an abundance of wealth to tempt football stars. In 2007, David Beckham left Real Madrid’s Galaticos signing a monster five-year $32.5m deal with LA Galaxy. When Beckham’s contract expired this year, he signed a two-year extension, taking a pay cut but still earning $4m per year. Thierry Henry is currently top of the pay charts with a $5.6m annual contract. Signing the likes of Beckham and Henry, directly from Real Madrid and Barcelona, signified the intention of the MLS to become a renowned global brand. Subsequently, and most recently, established Premiership stars Robbie Keane and Tim Cahill, the latter an Australian, have made the move Westside. Even current Chelsea star Frank Lampard has expressed an interest to play in the MLS in the future. Financially, Australia cannot compete at the same level and the first item on the agenda which should be addressed is the poor television rights which it suffers from.
The second limitation of playing in Australia is location. It is miles away – quite literally. European players moving to the MLS ‘only’ have to endure, approximately, a ten hour flight back to Europe. It’s over double that for Australia. Even then, flying from Australia to any part of the American continent is still over twelve hours. It is a long way away, meaning that sometimes, one can feel cut off from the rest of the world. However, I lived in Sydney for almost six glorious years. I can vouch, first hand, that it is an incredible place to live. Regularly voted as one of the world’s best cities, Sydney seldom disappoints. Generally speaking, the quality of life is second to none. In short, I have never understood why a player, for example, would wish to spend his twilight years somewhere like Qatar over Australia.
So, the big signing has understandably resulted in a mass scramble for Sydney FC memberships next season. It is imperative that the Del Piero experiment works as this could be the last throw of the dice for the A-League. As per David Beckham in the U.S, a Del Piero Australian legacy is a necessity.