By Frank Risorto
Sunday 16th September 2016, a flight arrives into Sydney International Airport from Turin via Singapore moments after 10am.
The passengers on the flight make their way through customs and then the arrivals gate around 45 minutes later.
For those congregated in the arrivals hall, many dressed in black and white, they’re there to give a rock star welcome to one particular passenger about to walk through the doors, and his name was Alessandro Del Piero.
In October 2011 at a Juventus shareholder meeting club president Andrea Agnelli announced that the 2011–2012 season would be Del Piero’s last with the Turin club, noting Del Piero will forever be linked to the club despite being shown the door.
“The unique link between the old Juventus and the new Juventus is our captain, Alessandro Del Piero.
He wanted to stay with us for one more year, and this will be his last season wearing the black-and-white jersey”.
What appeared to be on brand for Juventus, see Roberto Baggio in 1995, the Turin club showed that it was business not personal and that business was built off the back of on-field performances on the field, with no room for sentimentality.
After 19 years with Juventus Del Piero left the club as a World Cup, UEFA Champions League and Serie A winner playing 705 games and scoring 289 goals.
The Italian papers the day after his final match covered the story from all angles even maintaining some resemblance of balance, sometimes hard to find in Italian football, making note of the fact that Del Piero hit the woodwork 68 times and missed 12 penalties.
Del Piero, now a free agent, was linked with a move to Liverpool, Celtic and Olympiakos as well as moves to the Middle East, Argentina and United States.
It was then met with great surprise in November 2012, particularly in Australia, that Del Piero was rumored to be thinking of making the move down under to join the A-League club Sydney FC.
Sydney FC’s initial talks with the Italian superstars were met with enthusiasm as club CEO Tony Pignata confirmed to Four Four Two Australia at the time.
“Overnight we had two video conferences lasting about two hours discussing the possibility of bringing Alessandro Del Piero to Sydney FC for the 2012/13 season,” Sydney FC chief executive officer (CEO) Tony Pignata said.
“We spoke about football, as well as the Sydney lifestyle and the ability for him to leave a lasting legacy in the game.
“Being what Beckham was for Major League Soccer (MLS) in Australia was the nuts and bolts of our pitch, and what Sydney could do.”
As part of the sales pitch to Del Piero and his management Sydney FC’s presentation went as far as presenting Del Piero with a letter from Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard welcoming and inviting him to Australia.
“We had a video conference at 6pm with Stefano Del Piero and Dario Tosetti, who is the chairman of Alessandro Del Piero’s personal business. We had a whiteboard and we spoke in their native tongue of Italian which was a good selling point.” Pignata said.
“On the Wednesday, when we sent the Prime Minister’s letter, and that just showed how serious we were. They were very, very touched by that.”
So, when the deal was confirmed and the announcement made that Del Piero was on his way to Sydney it was met with massive fanfare and huge coverage in the Australian media and for the Italian-Australian community it was a chance to see a footballing god up close.
“I’m happy to announce that I just signed for two for Sydney FC,” said Del Piero upon signing of the contract.”
“I wanted to continue my career in a new part of the world where I can make a major contribution and help grow the game I love.”
Sydney FC Club Chairman Scott Barlow was just as excited as to what lay ahead for Sydney FC’s new addition.
“This signing is a major coup for Sydney FC and marks a historic day for football in this country,” Barlow said. “This is for all Australian football fans”.
“Alessandro Del Piero is a global icon of the game and we are honoured he has chosen Sydney FC, ahead of many other options, as the club where he will begin the next chapter of his illustrious football career.
Sydney newspaper ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ got into the Italian spirit printing its back page and Del Piero announcement on entirely pink paper in honour of Italy’s famous La Gazzetta dello Sport renaming the back page ‘La Gazzetta Del Piero’.
The Football Federation of Australia (FFA), Sydney FC and the A-League hoped the landmark signing would make global headlines and that it did.
The Australian media reported the signing with Sydney worth A$2 million a year for two years and Del Piero made an immediate impact, not only on the training pitch where Sydney FC had to hire security guards to keep fans at bay, but in terms of memberships for the club and merchandising.
FOX Sports Australia reported at the time that Del Piero’s number 10 Sydney FC shirt could be the highest-selling individually named jersey in Australian sport with Pignata telling FOX Sports he even expected to sell Sydney shirts in Turin.
Some previous money-grabbing marquees that have graced Australian football, such as Romario, Nicola Berti and Mario Jardel to name a few, were here it seemed for the payday, nightlife and holiday but Sydney FC were adamant that Del Piero still had good football ahead of him and the Italian veteran made it clear he was here to win as well.
Making his debut against Newcastle Jets, in front of over 35,000 at the Sydney Football Stadium, Del Piero impressed from the get-go wowing the crowd with his ability to dictate play from the front often playing as a target man and focal point for the Sydney FC attack.
For what he lacked in height as a regular ‘target man’ he more than made up for with his first touch.
Despite losing on his debut 3–2 Del Piero made an instant impact after he struck a free kick from 25 yards over the Newcastle wall to level the scores at 1–1 and making headline news.
Ironically Del Piero arrived at Sydney FC whilst they were at their most dysfunctional and with the tag as the A-League glamour club, nicknamed ‘Bling FC’, the pressure was on Del Piero from the outset to win.
Del Piero went on to have moments of brilliance in his first season and although the free kick that day pleased many in the crowd not everyone returned and after the initial hype wore off, Sydney FC maintained a steady home crowd average and for the first time passed 10,000 members.
Sydney FC finished the season in seventh place with Del Piero leading the clubs goal scoring charts with 14 goals and numerous assists on the field but off the field his impact was greater.
Now living in relative the anonymity of Sydney Del Piero quickly become accustomed to life in Australia and readily interacted with fans at both home and away grounds something you rarely see in Italy’s Serie A.
Always willing to take photos, sign autographs or conduct interviews in his best English Del Piero told the newspaper ‘The Advertiser’ it’s all part of his role in Australia.
“I lived in a part of Italy where I didn’t have a lot of time or money to travel to watch games,” Del Piero said. I watched a few games but I didn’t get the opportunity to get close to the players — that’s why I didn’t have an autograph from anyone.
“But it’s OK, I grew up OK without an autograph. I had a wonderful childhood. “Money was a problem, the family. For me I had one thing in my mind — soccer. That’s why I was happy with just one toy, a ball was enough for me.
“For me, it’s a pleasure. When I was a kid, I was like these kids. I was very happy if I met a great sportsman and I think it’s part of our job. It’s not a job really, but it’s a part of it and I’m very happy to do it. It’s no problem for me signing autographs for an hour.
“I need some days to relax, but when I’m working I try to be available.” It’s different because in Sydney there is five million people — in Torino there is less than one million and, after 19 years there, I know everyone,” Del Piero said.
“It’s different, the approach by most people, people keep more distance here. In Italy people get excited and they want to kiss you, touch you. We are Italian, you know? That’s the difference.” said Del Piero.
In Del Piero’s second season Sydney FC once again failed to fire yet still managed to finish in fifth place qualifying for the finals, with Del Piero again leading the goalscoring chart with 10 goals, but they were eliminated in week one of the finals by Melbourne Victory.
It was clear to those watching Del Piero he was not only starting to slow down, and openly growing increasingly frustrated playing up front on his own, so after two years it was no surprise that Del Piero announced he’d be leaving Australia.
Departing Sydney in 2014 Del Piero enjoyed his time down under saying he will be “sempre un po’ australiano” (always a little bit Australian) and as he later recalled in his autobiography not only did he feel his time in Australia left a mark on the game he loves so dearly but his time in Australia left a mark on Del Piero and his appreciation for life outside Italy.
“And that is what I’ve found in Australia. I’ve rediscovered things I had almost forgotten: going to the park with my children (something I did with my father, when I was the child), walking around the city, being a tourist where I live, taking time for my family and for myself, and experiencing a new dimension I hadn’t known before coming to Sydney.” Del Piero explains.
“Australia stands for a before and an after. Even once I’m no longer here I’ll always remember this interlude as a watershed time in my life, and not only in my professional life.
“Before this, I was used to being Alessandro Del Piero all the time, on and off the field. I have always deliberately (and I would say proudly) kept my public side separate from my private one: Del Piero the footballer separate from Alessandro, the father, husband, son, brother, friend . . . But in Italy, and in Europe generally, outside the four walls of my home it’s impossible not to be Del Piero.
Del Piero left Australia to join the India Super League club the Dehli Dynamos and in October 2015 announced his retirement.
Looking back now many around the game in Australia spoke of the ‘Del Piero affect’, given to the fact Sydney would often draw crowds away from home, and that it would never be replicated in Australian football however perhaps Australia can claim its own ‘effect’ on Alessandro Del Piero.
“This country is a great example: it has harnessed diversity as an asset without seeing it as an obstacle, and this is the basis of its community life and the cornerstone of a shared value system. It’s something you pick up very quickly, when you go shopping, when you take your children to school, at restaurants and on the training pitch. It’s a lesson I want to carry with me forever, and I’d like my children to do the same. said Del Piero.
“I realised at once, after just a few days Down Under, that I had made the right choice. On and off the field. I think all sportspeople should try to spend a period of their professional lives in Australia, because for anyone in my profession it’s a sort of paradise.”
“Australia isn’t just a place; it’s a state of mind.”