Del Piero arrives down under
The player who Australian football officials hope will help revitalize the sport in the country arrived Sunday to start a two-year contract with Sydney FC.
Former Juventus and Italy forward Alessandro Del Piero made quite an impression several days away from strapping on his boots for his first training session.
Wearing a Sydney FC scarf and signing autographs for fans who had waited up to five hours, Del Piero arrived to a raucous Sydney airport welcome.
The 37-year-old Del Piero, reported to be earning $2 million a season, emerged from the Australian customs area with his family late Sunday morning and was met by hundreds of chanting and cheering fans lined up behind metal security barriers.
Many were wearing his No 10 on Juventus or Sydney FC shirts, while others waved large banners from the Serie A club that Del Piero played for over 19 seasons. His arrival was televised live by a sports network across the country.
"I am here not for the end of my career but for the start of my new career," said Del Piero, the biggest signing in the history of Australian football. Asked if he wanted win titles with Sydney FC, Del Piero said: "I want to win some. I play to win."
Del Piero, who also made a few comments in Italian, was taken from the airport to a downtown hotel where he planned to recover with his wife, Sonia, and their three children from the 20-hour trip from Italy via Singapore.
Phil Hope, who has traveled to China, Japan and South Korea to watch Sydney FC in Asian Champions League matches, said Del Piero's signing meant everything to the club's supporters.
"The man is a genuine superstar, not just a football superstar," Hope told Australian Associated Press. "He's a sporting superstar worldwide, it's put our club on the map. He hasn't kicked a ball in anger yet, but already he's paid for himself.
"To put rugby league off the front and back page in the press in the middle of the (National Rugby League) finals series, how good is that? It's worth two million bucks by itself."
Hope predicted Del Piero's move to Sydney would prove to be a unifying force between the old and new factions of the footballing community.
"It will bring the Italian community up, which is one thing the A-League has lacked," Hope said. "They've made it non-ethnic support, non-denominational, (but) the reality is we still haven't unified all the old football communities. This is going to be a huge step in that direction."
Sydney FC scheduled a media conference with Del Piero on Monday and his first training session is set for Tuesday with his new club.
Del Piero, a member of Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning team and who scored a club-record 286 goals for Juventus, is expected to help bring greater exposure -and spectators - to the struggling A-League, which has suffered from declining crowds and the folding of two teams in the past two seasons.
His decision to play in Australia is being compared with David Beckham's impact on the game in the United States when he signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Sydney chief executive Tony Pignata, who traveled to Turin nearly two weeks ago to get Del Piero's signature on the contract, said he was pleased with the response of fans - more than 2 000 club memberships have been sold since Del Piero's contract was signed.
Pignata also said 15 000 Sydney FC jerseys with Del Piero's No 10 and name on the back had been manufactured and were selling fast, with orders from around the world.
Tickets for Sydney's first home match at the 45 000-seat Sydney Football Stadium on October 13 have not yet gone on sale. A Sydney official said although the match was unlikely to be a sellout - "that's a big call" -it could be the team's biggest first-match crowd in its history.
Del Piero's first official public appearance in Sydney is expected next Sunday - September 23 - when the players will be handed their jerseys for the upcoming season.
His first game for Sydney could be against Newcastle next Saturday, a preseason match scheduled to be played in the Central Coast town of Budgewoi north of Sydney. However, if Del Piero plays, it is expected to be moved to a larger stadium at nearby Gosford.
Sydney plays its first-round match of the new A-League season at Wellington, New Zealand on October 6.
Average attendance in the A-League dropped from a high of 14 600 in 2007-08 to as low as 8 400 in 2010-11, although it increased to 10 500 last season.
North Queensland Fury folded in 2010 and Gold Coast United in 2011, but the league will return to 10 teams with the addition of the Western Sydney Wanderers this season.
Regardless of what he does on the field on his aging legs, the deal has made Del Piero the highest paid athlete in Australia's four football codes, which also includes rugby league, rugby union and Australian Rules.
The A-League's other past marquee signings, who are outside the team's salary cap, have been former Manchester United star Dwight Yorke, who also played for Sydney in 2005-06, and former Liverpool forward Robbie Fowler, who played with the now-defunct North Queensland team then Perth Glory from 2009-11.