Wellington: Alessandro Del Piero’s ability to revitalise the A-League and breathe more life into Australian football will get its first test on Saturday in New Zealand.
The former Juventus and Italy star, now 37, will travel with the Sydney FC squad for their season-opener against the Wellington Phoenix in what may be an early and revealing test of the box office buzz which local officials hope the league’s most expensive and high-profile signing will generate.
Del Piero’s potential A-League debut has already boosted ticket sales in Wellington, New Zealand — the A-League’s only offshore outpost — where professional soccer has a precarious foothold. But that may only translate on Saturday into a crowd of about 14,000, a faint hint of the crowds he has played for at Europe’s famous football venues.
Still, there are early signs that Del Piero might well have the star power to lure back to football and to the A-League those fans who may have become disenchanted by the league’s financial problems of recent seasons which led to the dissolution of clubs such as Gold Coast and North Queensland.
His mission is not a lone one. The signings by the Newcastle Jets of former England striker Emile Heskey and by league newcomers Western Sydney of Japan star Shinji Ono has added additional lustre to the 2012-13 competition and have helped to boost its international profile.
Already, simply because of Del Piero’s presence, Sydney FC’s matches are being televised live in Italy and the club has already topped its record for season membership. The A-League, now in its eighth year, has a chance with its high-profile signings to shed a provincial image and to become a popular destination for leading players near the end of their careers.
“There is a train of thought that each club should have a player of similar ilk,” Newcastle Jets coach Gary van Egmond told the Australian media. “One week we’d have Alessandro coming out [to play against Newcastle], the next we’d have Ono, the next week you might have a [Ryan] Giggs.”
Football Federation Australia chief executive Ben Buckley said the consecutive signings of Del Piero, Heskey and Ono had taken the A-League to a new level. Robbie Fowler and Dwight Yorke previously added some star power to the league, but in different seasons.
“We have had marquee players before but never of such international star quality and class in such a short time,” Buckley said. “You can sense the buzz right around the country. Season eight is like nothing we have seen before.”
Sydney FC and Newcastle experienced immediate surges in membership when Del Piero and Heskey’s signings were announced and sales of Del Piero’s No 10 jersey are high.
“In terms of memberships we’ve beaten the record, which was 7,500, and I’m confident we’ll go on to beat 8,000,” said Sydney chief executive Tony Pignata. “I’m happy with that in terms of the market in Sydney and there’s still 10 days before our first home game.”
Newcastle have also felt a surge in interest since Heskey’s signing. “It’s massive,” Van Egmond said. “This is the most interest I’ve ever seen in the A-League since the inaugural season. Football and non-football fans alike are all talking about it.”
Former Australia international Tony Popovic, who will coach Western Sydney in their debut season, said the sudden transformation of the A-League was striking, particularly in a country where Australian Rules football and rugby league have significantly bigger TV deals and crowd attendances.
“A few weeks ago no-one could envisage having a Del Piero here, or a Heskey, and all of a sudden we have three big-name players,” he said. “You can feel a real sense of football being on the map.”
Within Sydney FC, long considered the marquee club of Australian football, Del Piero’s influence has been obvious.
“Certainly there’s a lot more exposure and adulation on the club at the minute,” captain Terry McFlynn said. “And for me it’s a good thing.
“For the young players, it shows them what it’s like where Alessandro has come from and the passion and fanaticism of fans overseas. We want to embrace that in Australia.”
Del Piero has shrugged off the intense media interest that surrounded his arrival in Australia and has concentrated on fitting in.
“At the moment we need to spend time to get to know each other and for me to get to know the A-League,” he said. “It’s different to where I played last year. I have to get more confidence about the style.”
While Del Piero is expected to make his first A-League appearance in New Zealand, Heskey will make his debut - likely off the bench - when Newcastle play Adelaide on Sunday and Ono will take part in Western Sydney’s historic first league match against Central Coast on Saturday evening.
The Brisbane Roar, defending champions and favourites for the title again, open their season on Sunday against Perth in a repeat of last year’s grand final while the Melbourne Victory and Melbourne Heart open the league with a derby.
The 10-team league is 27 games long and runs from this weekend until April 1 and the finals series.