If there was any doubt just how big Alessandro Del Piero’s move to Sydney FC was, then you had to look no further than the sports section of the Sydney Morning Herald – one of the city’s biggest newspapers – the day after he arrived. It had turned pink, was all in Italian and given an honorary title: La Gazzetta Del Piero. Underneath was a sprawling headline ‘Benvenuto ADP’. It was an indication the Sky Blues had engineered one of the biggest deals in Australian sporting history.
It was a bizarre notion to think Del Piero would be playing his football in Australia, after 19 years at Juventus. But that’s exactly what happened, with Ale trading Turin for ‘Bling FC’. The Press conference announcing his arrival was beamed live on Australian television – never mind the majority of it was in Italian.
With a reported $4m a year salary, he was comfortably the highest paid footballer in the country, of any code. The move drew comparisons to David Beckham’s to LA Galaxy. He called it ‘Project Sydney’.
It’s fair to say he lived up to the hype. “There is no doubt that Alessandro’s contribution has laid the foundations for a lasting legacy and he has inspired a whole new generation of Sydney FC football fans and future players,” Sydney chairman Scott Barlow said.
Del Piero wore the sky blue shirt 48 times, scoring 24 goals. That puts Pinturicchio second on the club’s A-League scorers’ list, six behind Alex Brosque, who did it in 104 appearances. What Beckham did that Del Piero couldn’t was land a championship. A poor Sydney struggled in his first year, their inconsistency meaning no top six play-offs. They improved in 2013-14, only knocked out in the first round of the Finals by a last minute goal. Del Piero, by then captain, was their lynchpin. Often when Sydney needed a moment of magic, he was the man to deliver. Without him they struggled.
Off the field the signing also proved successful. His first home game – against Emile Heskey’s Newcastle – attracted 35,419 fans. It was to that point a regular-season club record. Their average attendance rose from 11,861 to 18,682, while Sydney away game figures spiked as fans rushed to watch the World Cup winner in action. Memberships surpassed the 10,000 mark for the first time in the club’s history. Del Piero responded to the fervour, always willing to meet fans after training or matches.
He, along with Heskey and Shinji Ono, gave the competition greater worldwide exposure. Del Piero’s presence fashioned a Sky Blues pre-season Italian trip and games broadcast live in Italy. Sydney became something of a No 2 team, with shirts on sale in Italy – quite the feat in itself.
A fortnight ago the Juve icon decided to end his stay in Australia, even if there were rumours a player/Coach role was up for grabs. He leaves with a number of memorable moments. The aforementioned home debut brought with it a trademark free-kick goal, his first for the club. When Sydney belted Wellington 7-0, Del Piero grabbed a poker. This past January he was instrumental in Sydney’s massive 5-0 away win at arch rivals Melbourne Victory. Then there were the touches of class, ones to leave fans in awe. He was too hot for most to handle, being one of the most fouled players in the League.
The 39-year-old has confirmed his desire to continue playing. China was ruled out, but Japan could be an option given Del Piero’s star status. However, the MLS appears the frontrunner, possibly LA Galaxy or DC United.
The mind remains willing, even if the legs are not so. Del Piero’s second season was blighted by niggling muscle injuries. He did not play to his best with any regularity. How he handles a new league with new fans to please, new expectations and an ever-ageing frame remains to be seen. Here’s hoping Pinturicchio will captivate his new audience with the flair he showed Down Under.
His departure from Australia was somewhat abrupt, but fans will get one last chance to see Del Piero in action when he leads the A-League All-Stars in a friendly against Juventus in Sydney this August. And with it is the chance to salute a person who has done much for the game in Australia.