One of the biggest transfer moves from the past week was Alessandro Del Piero eschewing the advances of Southampton and signing for Sydney FC. As one who lives in Sydney but has previously had the pleasure of calling Southampton home, may I be among the first to congratulate Il Pinturicchio on making this difficult choice over where to continue his career. I’d like to reassure Alessandro that should he wish to find a late-night kebab kiosk and hook up with an Aussie soap star then he will be well serviced in this beautiful harbour city. In hindsight, Matt Le Tissier must regret never plying his trade in the A-League.
The big imports to the Australian domestic league last year were natives: Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton. Neither captured the public imagination on anything like the level hoped for. Kewell has since left Melbourne Victory and is available as a free agent. Del Piero is a different footballing creature altogether: exotic, decorated and world-class.
There’s a strange tendency down here to lump fans of the various football codes – soccer, Aussie Rules, rugby union and league – together, while also pushing the line that following any of these codes is a mutually exclusive arrangement. It thus flows that you are open to be ‘poached’ by one of the others. Rugby league and Aussie rules, in particular, seem to be locked in an unedifying ruck for each other’s most hardcore adherents. From my limited experience it seems highly unlikely that if you’ve grown up in the western suburbs of Sydney you are going to simply put to one side all your cultural inclinations towards league. It is entirely possible though that those who live and breathe Parramatta Eels can quite easily pick up a remote and tune in to watch the GWS Giants. But building up loyal, die-hard fan bases are long-term projects at best.
That soccer sees itself in competition with the established codes is even more bizarre. For one thing it has a free run at the summer months while the rugbies and AFL are concentrating on gym work and tan-topping.
Australians are very savvy sport fans. The multi-layered Tour de France was closely followed here at a time when the cycling explosion in Britain was a mere twinkle in Lance Armstrong’s needle. They understand that ‘soccer’ is the ‘world’s game’ and don’t need a 37 year old Italian superstar to saunter around the Allianz Stadium to underline the point. On past form they will also cynically view this signing as a sad bid for attention. Worse, many will see it as a desperate gimmick.
While David Beckham has raised the profile of the MLS, both in the US and abroad, that profile is most associated with being a retirement backwater for players no longer able to perform in the European top-flights. Thus the English Premier League, despite its oft-challenging kick-off times, will continue to be by far the most watched soccer on TV in the States and Australia.
With all that said, I am excited about seeing a true legend of the game in the flesh. Del Piero spent his whole career at Juve and, like Raul’s move to Schalke a couple of years ago, just seeing him in a different club shirt will be a strange experience. There’s also the curiosity in seeing how his still world class technique compares to teammates such as Krunoslav Lovrek and Terry McFlynn.
If Football Australia is serious about expanding the reach of the A-League they could do a lot worse than to take the $4m over two seasons for Del Piero and use it to subsidise making at least some of the A-League’s games available on free-to-air TV.