Ah, Alessandro Del Piero, where to begin?
Even were he not a footballer, just the mere sound of his name conjures up images of a continental Adonis, far too handsome and cool to have to suffer the indignity of a solid day’s graft. Alessandro Del Piero is the name of a man who deserves to spend his finite time on this Earth lazing about on a beachside sun lounger, strawberry daiquiri in one hand, cigar in the other, as a thin layer of sweat glistens off his olive-skinned, chiselled abs, acting as a beckoning call to each of the many beautiful ladies surrounding him. Which is, to be fair, pretty much the general perception of why Alessandro moved to Australia.
Having spent nineteen years wearing the black and white stripes of ‘The Old Lady’, nobody would have begrudged him the opportunity to pack it all in and spend a couple of months with his feet up in his castle in the Italian countryside, cooking spaghetti, or watching reruns of The Sopranos, or whatever else it is Italians watch. Having won all there is to win in Europe, from the Champions League in ’96, the World Cup a decade later, Serie A countless times to an insurmountable number of personal accolades, Alessandro would have been well within his rights to call it a day at the ripe old age of 37. Del Piero, though, had other ideas.
You see, Alessandro had always dreamt of travelling the world, ever since he was a child. Having been raised the son of an electrician, Gino, and a housekeeper, Bruna, in San Vendemiano, a small municipality of Treviso in Northern Italy, money was scarce and trips abroad were few. When questioned by teachers in school about his hopes and dreams for the future, about what he aspired to achieve with his life, young Alessandro lacked the confidence to be honest, and risk mockery by admitting ‘a footballer’. So instead, he told them his backup plan, to become a lorry driver in order to drive around Europe, and to see the world. Whilst not quite on the level of Phileas Fogg, it was a plan as good as any, not that he need to have worried.
As it happened, Plan A proved to be a more than adequate one, and it wasn’t too long after that he burst onto the scene as a spotty teenager at Serie B side Padova. Impressing instantly, Del Piero’s prodigious talents lasted just fourteen games at Padua before Juventus saw fit to part with somewhere in the region of five billion Lira, or just under £ 3 million, in order to secure the signing of their future captain.
Netting a hattrick against Parma on his full debut was just the beginning, a little taste of what was to come. Operating as a secondary striker, creating as well as scoring, he earned himself the nickname ‘Pinturicchio’, after the Italian renaissance painter, due to the beautiful deftness and elegance with which he caressed the ball around his canvas, manipulating it to perform his bidding.
In football, players of such quality arrive, and players of such players depart. That’s just the way it goes. The natural order. Except for, in the rarest of cases, where a player may stay at a team despite interest from elsewhere, remaining loyal to the club of their heart=fr. Whilst always impressive, it is particularly admirable when they remain during times of adversity. When times are tough, and their side is struggling. When they could go chasing the money, or the silverware. But instead, they stay and are eulogised by their fans. They know that winning less with THEIR side means more than winning anything with anybody else.
The likes of Francesco Totti, or Steven Gerrard. Or Matt Le Tissier back before he started believing silverware was the choice of attire for aliens attempting to infiltrate our ‘Flat Earth’. This is the loyalty that Del Piero showed ‘I Bianconeri’ in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal in 2006. Relegated to Serie B, a whole host of stars left the club, desperate for European football elsewhere. Del Piero chose to stay, along with compatriot Gigi Buffon, and lead Juventus to promotion at the first time of asking, winning the league despite a points deduction.
At a club such as Juventus, with superstars and icons nestled in amongst their rich and successful history, consisting of the likes of Georgio Chiellini, Gaetano Scirea, Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile and Giampiero Boniperti, all bona fide legends in their own right, and would certainly be the pinnacle at other clubs, Del Piero stands head and shoulders above them all.
His final game in front of the Le Zebre faithful provided evidence of just how much Del Piero meant to the fans, and how much the fans meant to Del Piero. Having scored to make it 2-0 against Atalanta, he was substituted to a standing ovation, as players from both sides, as well as the referee, queued to shake his hand as he left the field. Unsatisfied, a teary-eyed Alessandro underwent an impromptu lap of honour as sobbing fans serenaded him, throwing scarves down which he scooped up to keep as souvenirs. Those few that could see through blinking away tears were unaware that the game was still underway, as everything suddenly played second fiddle to the man who remains the physical embodiment of Juventus. The King of Turin.
You know those letters that only seem to get written in American sitcoms? Where the main character finds a letter addressed to them from their eight-year-old selves and realises just how disappointed their childhood self would be? I imagine Del Piero went through something similar upon deciding to abdicate his throne, when interest was high and potential destinations were many. Turning down the option of continuing his career in Europe, I imagine he had a word with little Alessandro, the boy who had told his teacher of his plans to see just what the world had to offer. Whilst he had of course travelled during Champions League games and for his international side, and the odd holiday or two I assume, the vast majority of his 37 years had been spent in Italy.
So where better for a change of scenery than the completely opposite side of the world? The agreement for Del Piero to sign for Sydney FC was one that shook the Australian league to its core. By far the highest profile player to ever play in the A-League, Del Piero arrived at Sydney airport to be mobbed by fans, conjuring up a scene that drew more parallels to ferocious Turkish ultras than the sleepy surfers of Harbour City.
There was just one small issue, Sydney FC just weren’t very good. Having finished in fifth place, out of ten sides, the season before – an average season by sheer definition of the word – would serial winner Del Piero be able to drag a lacklustre Sydney side up the table?
The answer to that, in a way, is secondary. For a team such as Sydney FC, established less than a decade prior in a nation where football wasn’t the primary sport, the real question revolved around the impact that his signing would have, both for Sydney FC and the A-League as a whole.
In the modern internet age, there were millions of football fans around the globe who could tell you about the latest future superstar being churned through the conveyor belt of talent in South America, what they thought of their favourite Serie C side’s latest tactical switch and why Jozy Altidore was clinical in the Eredivise and the MLS but couldn’t hit a barn door in the Premier League. But, did they even know that Australia had a professional football league?
David Beckham’s move to LA Galaxy had really put the MLS on the map a few years earlier, and Sydney FC were hoping for a similar impact. And boy did they get it. Attendances skyrocketed, almost doubling overnight as they averaged 18,637 during Del Piero’s first season in comparison to 11,861 the year before. Indeed, an almost inconceivable 35,419 fans packed into the Allianz Stadium, coincidently the name that Juventus’ stadium would later take, to witness his home debut, which he commemorated in true Del Piero fashion by nestling a free kick into the top corner. Indeed, there was such a furore over his first appearance in a sky-blue shirt that the option was there to watch a ‘hero-cam’, which followed his every move across the 90 minutes.
Grant Muir, an exiled Scot who was instrumental in the establishment of ‘The Cove’, Sydney FC’s largest fan group, and who had been involved in football around the globe, from supporting Hamilton Accies to the formation of the J-League reminisced about the signing, stating that
“it kind of broke through the cultural attitude that people have to football in Australia, where it is the fifth tier sport, or at least it was. At that time, it basically put us on the sporting map in terms of attendance. We can’t compete with Rugby League and AFL, which are absolutely massive sports, so the approach to generating interest and engaging the public is very different to the way it is in other countries where you’re the number one sport. We had a massive increase, especially in families, coming to the game, which is a big deal as that’s how you get the generational support.”
It wasn’t just during home games that attendance increased either-
“it increased attendances in every game that he went to, so even away games where people would come just to see Del Piero. Not only would they come to see him, they would come back to see him the next time as well.”
It wasn’t just in Australia that there was a buzz around the new signing either, with images circulating of Sydney FC shirts for sale in Turin marketplaces before it had officially been released.
Muir remembers with a grin-
“We knew we had hit the big time when two weeks before the start of the season when somebody sent us a photograph of a bootleg version of the Sydney FC jersey being sold in a market in Turin with ‘Del Piero 10’ on the back of it. He was such a cult hero in Italian football, even for non-Juve fans, that he attracted such an awful lot of attention.”
According to Muir, there was similar fanfare across Asia, where Del Piero already had a permanent office in order to run the Tokyo branch of the Del Piero fan club.
“In Asia support is very orientated around personalities. They get very attached to individual players and their allegiances switch to wherever the player goes during their career. Signing a player like Alessandro Del Piero gave us a massive, massive profile in Asia – everybody was writing about it.”
So, whilst the signing of the iconic Italian brought a sharp upturn in popularity and attention in the short term, did it have the lasting impact that they hoped for?
Muir describes a conversation with then-Sydney FC Chief Executive Tony Pignata about what they called ‘the Del Piero cliff’ – basically could they maintain the attendance figures once the buzz surrounding Del Piero had worn off? And, it turns out, they could. The season after he moved to pastures new, again continuing to make young Alessandro proud by embarking on a fleeting sojourn to Delhi Dynamos (now Odisha FC) in India, attendance figures continued at more or less the same rate, remaining in the 18 thousand.
Whilst these figures have fluctuated during the years since, Sydney’s new stadium has seen an average of 19,232 attend the two games since opening during the off-season, and although a small sample size, it makes encouraging reading for the club, particularly after the A-League as a whole have suffered massively in terms of attendance over the last few Covid impacted seasons, with every club recording record low figures.
So, whilst it could be argued that the arrival of Del Piero didn’t have the long-term impact that Sydney FC hoped for, in terms of attendance figures, his legacy lives on in much more than numbers, and, potentially, the jury is still out.
“He was a very, very charming guy. Very humble, the opposite of a swaggering arse of which you get a lot of these days, and it was absolutely believable that he gave a shit about every single fan” Muir tells me, “that was one of the things that struck me. After every game he would stand out there for ages signing autographs, making sure all the little kids get their autograph. He was obsessed with the idea that he could contribute something by the way he acted as well as the way he played football.”
Whilst this shows the measure of the man because, let’s face it, in an age when many footballers act like spoilt prima-donnas – at least he would have had the trophy cabinet to back it up, it also could yet have a lasting influence on the growth of Sydney FC. After all, those children who Del Piero gave his time up for, spending hours interacting with and signing autographs for, making lifelong memories for, will now be maturing to an age that they will be able to attend football matches with their mates of their own accord, rather than relying on AFL or Rugby Union loving family to take them.
So whilst the impact he made off the pitch was significant, at the end of the day, Alessandro Del Piero was a football player. A very bloody good one. Even at the not-so-tender age of 37, Alessandro could play ball. Despite his advancing years meaning that he couldn’t get about the pitch as well as he once could, he still just had that aura about him, that natural instinct to pick up pockets of space that doesn’t leave you, and a magic wand of a right foot to boot (see what I did there?).
24 goals across his two-year spell are a testament to this, averaging a goal every other game despite entering the twilight of his career. On top of the sheer volume of goals he slotted, he scored every variety you can imagine. Penalties, free kicks, clever feints to sit the keeper on his arse before rolling it into the other corner, twisting defenders inside out on mazy solo runs, rifles from outside the box, delicate clips into the top corners – his highlight reel contains the lot.
Out on the pitch though, it was much more than simply his goals that endeared him to the Sky Blue faithful.
“The things that stood out were, number one, his ability to hold up the ball. If he didn’t want you to have that ball, you weren’t getting it, and that’s why he got kicked in the shins all the time. also his passing. It wasn’t so much the accuracy of the passing, we’ve got accurate passers, the difference was that he could pass the ball into space in a way that was almost like he could read the minds of the other player and know not only where he was going to run, but what speed he was going to be running at and which foot he wanted it on, and the ball would just magically appear on stride and, like anybody who’s really good at something, it appeared effortless to him.”
This natural talent that Del Piero seemed to have is one that separates truly world-class players onto a pedestal above the rest. As Johan Cruyff, who knew a thing or two about truly elite players, once said
“technique is not being able to juggle a ball a thousand times, technique is passing the ball with one touch, with the right speed, at the right foot of your teammate.”
Blessed with this technique, Del Piero used it, frequently to no avail, as he watched his Sydney FC teammates spurn chance after chance that he didn’t merely put on a plate for them, he chopped them up into small, bitesized pieces.
It can often be difficult for top class players to deal with less-talented players, with regular criticism of Roy Keane and Thierry Henry’s managerial careers the fact that they fail to comprehend that football just doesn’t come as easily to others as it did to them, that instinctive knowledge of where to position themselves or when to pass just not being there, with the expectation levels of players’ extremely high for players who simply, through no fault of their own, fail to possess the required ability.
It is a testament to Del Piero, therefore, that despite performing with players who arguably weren’t fit to lace his boots, he managed to keep his cool with those around him. Grant says
“he never seemed to show frustration, he was very patient and only ever said good things about the players, club and fans. He was, in terms of the way he presented himself, everything you could possibly hope for. He made everybody around him better, so God knows what they would have been like if he hadn’t had been there! I don’t know if it’s possible to finish lower than last but I think we’d have had a crack at it!”
See, regardless of how good Del Piero was, the answer to which is very very good, football is a team game, and unfortunately, over the course of a season, you cannot single-handedly drag a side to the top of the table. It’s a shame, really, that the timing was just not there for Alessandro, as he was unable to add to his bountiful collection of trophies, despite the club finishing first in the league and winning the finals just three years prior to his arrival, and three years after his departure.
Finishing seventh in his first season at the club, Sydney missed out on a Finals playoff spot on goal difference, finishing level on points with Perth Glory, despite Del Piero’s 14 goals – the fourth most in the league. The following season they did slightly better, finishing in fifth place in the ten-team league and qualifying for the Finals. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, with a lacklustre Sydney being knocked out in the first round thanks to an injury time winner by Melbourne Victory’s Gui Finkler.
Despite this lack of silverware, Del Piero’s legacy in Sydney remains untarnished, and his place in the hearts of those sky-blue fans endures. Prior to Del Piero’s debut for the club, a giant TIFO was unveiled, declaring ‘Il Pinturicchio – Paint It Blue’, and chants of ‘Forza Sydney FC’ rang around the ground in tribute to their new Italian superstar. Nearly a decade on, these chants remain rife in the stands, continuing to be one of Sydney FC’s most popular chants. The love is reciprocated, with Del Piero stating in his autobiography that “Australia isn’t just a place; it’s a state of mind.”
And it is on this ‘state of mind’ that a fully-grown Alessandro left a lasting impact, one which would have made his younger self proud, with the young explorer within treading his own path to the other side of the world. Armed with little more than a pair of boots and shinpads, Del Piero arrived in a country renowned for its relaxed, chilled out approach to life and lit a fire that transformed the way fans in the Emerald City observed their football. Gone were the days of passive support, as Il Pinturicchio vacated a set of fiery ultras, Tifo’d and pyro’d up – a fitting tribute of which his namesake would be proud as he left his own unique stamp on a nation that he did, indeed, paint blue.