When a top footballer reaches the fag end of his career, rumours start circulating about his signing being sought by a club in one of the Asian countries or in the United States, and more recently Australia. As the player moves ever closer to completing that ‘lucrative’ move, the news is greeted with a mixture of excitement and scepticism. Excitement at the prospect of seeing a ‘top’ player strutting his stuff in a relatively lesser league; Excitement about the impact his signing would have on the footballing public in that country.
Similarly, there is scepticism about the player’s motivation, his fitness levels, his partying style and the potential impact of his failure. “He is coming here for one last pay day before he heads off to the solitude of retirement” is the common refrain of the sceptics- and justifiably so. And there are more pressing concerns on the field of play. A top player- even with his powers on the wane- may prove to be an intimidating factor in the dressing room.
So, when it was announced the Alessandro Del Piero was set to sign for Sydney FC of the Australian A-League, there was a lot of excitement and that little nagging feeling of pessimism. The A-League had seen its fair share of hits and misses with foreign signings. Dwight Yorke was a runaway success in the 2005-06 season playing for Sydeny FC; Romario was absolutely pathetic and clearly over-the-hill when he came to Adelaide in 2008. The Brazilian played just 4 games in the entire campaign. Harry Kewell, Australia’s footballing hero, came back to the A-League last season amid a lot of fanfare. But his stint has proved rather uneventful.
Four weeks into the season, even the most ardent sceptics will agree that unless there is a major dip in form or an injury, the Italian maestro’s stint at Sydney FC is on its way to being a blockbuster success. The costliest signing in the A-League’s history- on a reported two million per year, two year deal- has driven soccer fans in Australia crazy. The Football Federation of Australia which launched a charm offensive to bring Del Piero down under must be chuffed by the charm of the affable Italian.
A vociferous crowd greeted his arrival at the Sydney airport and the media contingent was out in full force. For a sport which probably ranks lowest in the minds of the cricket-rugby-Aussie Rules Football loving public and press, this was certainly impressive. But this was just a prelude of things to come. When he was officially unveiled at the ANZ Stadium, a frenzied press pack was in attendance. As he posed for photographs with the ‘famous No10’ shirt along with his other team-mates, there was an unmistakable sense of excitement. Some journalists, after completing their professional responsbilities, started posing for photographs with him.
Outside the stadium, 2500 fans awaited Il Pinturicchio’s arrival. He played the perfect ambassador for them as he obliged every request for an autorgraph or a photograph. He smiled, laughed and looked entirely comfortable in the spotlight thrust on him. The humility that marked his career came across quite clearly. To complete this fairytale like arrival, he had his family for company. As his kids ran around- without showing the slightest concern to all the pandemonium around- Del Piero grinned. He seemed content and looked set to get started on the pitch.
On the field, things got off to a tepid start. Sydney FC started their A-League campaign with a 2-0 defeat away to Wellington Phoenix. Though Del Piero showed glimpses of his brilliance, he looked short of match-fitness in what was a fractured display by his side. But even that could not dampen the excitement of the Aussie public as the Italian prepared for his home debut against Newcastle Jets- who themselves were bolstered by the arrival of Emile Heskey as their marquee player. A record regular-season crowd of 35,419 thronged the stadium in anticipation. The Italian’s banners were unfurled and flags were being waved with gusto. It was unprecedented.
Then came the moment: As the visitors took the lead in the early stages of the game, Sydney went forward in search of an equalizer. In the 26th minute, Brazilian Tiago Calvano brought Del Piero down just outside the penalty box. The whole stadium was brought to its feet. They knew this was Del Piero’s territory. An air of inevitability hung around the stadium. The Italian stepped up and unfurled an unstoppable free kick into top right corner. The crowd erupted in joy, even as the Italian celebrated with his team mates in his customary style- with his tongue out in a cheekily lovable style. That his team went on to lose the game 3-2 did not seem to matter. Not for him though. He was quoted as saying “I’m happy to score the goal but I play for the win, not to score the goal”.
After two losses in two games, it was time to get that winning feeling for Sydney FC. And what better occasion than the Sydney derby. Del Piero’s team visited the Parammatta Stadium to take on their local rivals Western Sydney Wanderes- a new club instituted by the governing body after numerous unsuccessful attempts to establish a second club in Sydney. As fate would have it, the Italian maestro was in the thick of things again. In the second half he was upto his usual tricks in the penalty box before being brought down by Aaron Moby. Del Piero stepped up and coolly slotted home the penalty. But he was ordered to retake the penalty. The Italian’s shot was saved by the goalkeeper but he kept his composure and scored from the rebound, sealing the derby win. Though it wasn’t his best performance, he was still the best player on the pitch.
His excellent run of form continued as he scored a penalty in a 2-1 win home win against Perth Glory. As he continues his on-field exploits, his impact off-the-field has been even better. The Australian League has been blighted by revenue issues, dysfunctional ownership structures and a general feeling of stagnation over the past few years. There was a distinct sense of detachment as the league struggled to strike a chord with the fans. Del Piero’s arrival has revived the situation.
Attendances have been soaring not just in Sydney but in other cities too. TV Ratings have hit an unprecedented high. Fox Sports, the broadcaster of the A-League, jumped on to the Del Piero frenzy by placing a Hero Cam on him. A Hero Cam is a camera dedicated to one player thereby tracking him for the entire duration of the game. Cable Television viewers have the choice to switch to Hero Cam while watching the game. An Australian news paper called Del Piero “The biggest gift to Australian Football”.
While it’s still early days, it feels as if the last chapter in Del Piero’s illustrious career will end in a typically brilliant fashion.
Written by Guest Author Chaitanya Lakkapragada
Follow the author on Twitter: @chaitugooner