Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Del Piero kicks-off new era for A-League
"The winner is Sydney, Australia." These words echoed around the globe when Juan Antonio Samaranch announced the host city of the 2000 Olympic Games. And the phrase is just as important now that the race to sign Italian legend Alessandro Del Piero has come to a close.
To point out the obvious, the capture of Del Piero by A-League club Sydney FC is significant. So significant, in fact, that it can be compared to David Beckham moving to Los Angeles to become the face of the MLS.
Like Beckham, 37-year-old Del Piero has moved away from Europe to leave a legacy which will endure beyond his time on the pitch. It is this impact which propels the importance of these signings into a new realm.
Whether fans of leagues outside of Europe like it or not, big-name signings give their competitions a level of exposure and status they would simply otherwise not attain. For example, how many Premier League supporters could have named a club in China before Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba made their moves to Asia? Probably not too many. Now a fair share would at least know of Shanghai Shenhua.
Del Piero gives the A-League this boost onto the international stage. More so than Dwight Yorke, Juninho and Robbie Fowler before him, the World Cup winner and six-time Scudetto champion will lift the profile of Australian football to that of the MLS, J-League, Brasileiro Campeonato and Chinese Super League.
In terms of on-field impact, the signing is equally momentous. Players such as Del Piero become icons of the game because they bring a style and creativity to their play that few can match. Watching this inventiveness is how kids, in turn, learn to love the game. To have an artistic footballer such as Del Piero grace the pitches of the A-League is a huge boost for the future of the game Down Under.
The one argument which will be lodged by a cynical few will be that Del Piero's move is nothing more than a means for him to enhance his retirement fund in a second-rate league. It's an argument few people take the time to refute, but it's worth noting.
In the first instance, Sydney FC's billionaire owner David Traktovenko is not the kind of businessman to throw a reported $2 million per season at a gimmick. Nor would LA Galaxy waste money on Beckham in such a manner if they had not calculated a certain return.
Secondly, as is also the case with Beckham, the player has chosen to shift away from Europe despite having genuine offers from some top-class clubs. In Del Piero's case, he could have opted to take up Liverpool's last-gasp offer, or to have played Champions League football with Celtic, or even moved to FC Sion just over the Swiss border. Some of the best clubs in the world still want these players to don their colours, which says more than enough about what they can bring to the table.
Indeed, Del Piero made 23 appearances in Juventus' Serie A winning campaign last term, which is the latest honour accrued by one of Italy's favourite sons. For Il Pinturicchio to select Sydney FC while still in that kind of form is an endorsement of the A-League's potential.
During his 19 seasons at the Bianconeri, Del Piero proved himself one of the most popular figures at the club. This fame has extended throughout the world, particularly in Japan where he is revered by football followers across the country. It is telling, then, that 4.3% of Sydney's 3.9 million residents claim Italian ancestry. Scenes of Italy fans celebrating in and around the suburb of Leichhardt - including the 2006 World Cup when Del Piero and his team-mates knocked out the Socceroos in the round of 16 - are etched in the minds of Australian football fans.
Sydney FC must therefore make the most of this unique opportunity by giving the community - and the A-League generally - the opportunity to rub shoulders with one of the game's most well-respected ambassadors. One criticism of Yorke, Juninho and Fowler during their time in Australia, was that they were too silent when more could have been made of their status. The Galaxy and MLS have done a fine job of utilising the celebrity of Beckham, Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry to benefit football in the United States. It is crucial the Sky Blues follow this model.
Attendances in Australia's largest city could really use a shot in the arm. Since the departure of Yorke in 2006, Sydney FC have failed to maximise their potential to draw crowds. And with the Western Sydney Wanderers set to make their maiden A-League voyage this season, it is a vital time for Ian Crook's men to get the turnstiles ticking over more frequently.
The club will also have a small window to leverage the signing in a commercial sense before they kick-off their new season against the Wellington Phoenix on October 6. Sponsors will surely be drawn to the A-League like never before, and the door will also be opened for English and European clubs looking to play friendly matches in this part of the world.
For now, credit must go to Sydney FC, particularly their financial investors - lead by Traktovenko - and chief executive Tony Pignata, who finalised the deal in Turin this week. The Sky Blues have been pioneers in signing marquee players since the A-League's inception, and they have again paved the way for big-name players to view the competition as a viable alternative to European leagues.
Nobody is suggesting the signings of Beckham and Del Piero have fundamentally changed the powerbase of world football. But certainly the profile these players bring to these respective parts of the world alter the way supporters, players, coaches and investors alike view the game. They are, in that sense, turning "the world game" into a globally aware one. Long may it continue.