Alessandro Del Piero is no Mario Jardel. This is definitely a good thing. While the mention of the Brazilian’s short-lived stint in Australia still causes Newcastle Jets fans to break out in a cold sweat, Del Piero’s two seasons Down Under have been anything but an easy pre-retirement pay cheque. Granted, the Italian hasn’t won anything with Sydney FC to date and nor does he look likely to this season, but Del Piero has often carried the Sky Blues through poor performances and coach Frank Farina’s win percentage would look significantly worse without the former Juventus man.
Across the city at Western Sydney Wanderers, veteran Japanese international Shinji Ono has had significantly more success and was a major force in Wanderers’ debut season title win. Ono may not have been quite a high-profile arrival as Del Piero but the Japanese playmaker quickly became a poster boy for the A League, lighting up games with his deftness of touch and creative vision.
Both marquee signings have regularly been a joy to watch in the league since arriving and their impact has been such that the competition will take on a significantly different dimension without them next season. 35-year-old Ono has already confirmed he’ll be returning to Japan at the end of this campaign, while it’s not unfair to assume that the 39-year-old Del Piero will decide to call it a day once the season ends. The Italian still shows flashes of genius but even though his game has never required pace or stamina, injuries and age are slowly taking their toll and even if he decides to play on it would be a surprise if his body stays up to one more full season.
It’s hard to overstate the impact the arrival of the two veterans – one a genuine superstar, another who has become an Australian superstar – has had on Australian football, especially in the case of Del Piero. It’s no exaggeration to call the Italian Australia’s equivalent of David Beckham. Beloved in Turin, Del Piero had offers to wind down in Qatar but instead decided to raise the game in Australia to the next level.
When you look at the gate numbers whenever Sydney hit the road, despite the self-styled glamour club numbering along the also-rans, and responses the tifo that Adelaide United fans created praising the Italian and welcoming him to the Coopers’ Stadium, it’s hard to disagree. Attendances are up, viewing figures are up and the A League is now making front and back pages – not always positive, it has to be said. Del Piero, Ono and to a lesser extent Emile Heskey at Newcastle and Brisbane Roar’s foreign contingent of Thomas Broich, Besart Berisha and Liam Miller have played a large part in raising the profile of football in Australia.
There’s no doubt that when Ono and Del Piero depart, they’ll leave the A League in a better place than when they arrived, but quite what the landscape will look like next season without two of the competition’s biggest stars is another question. While the A League now commands a significantly higher profile, it still has stiff competition from the two rugby codes, AFL and cricket. Having high profile international players, even ones at the end of their career, helps in attracting new supporters, although those who underperform like Jardel will be quickly discarded.
So do the respective A League clubs dip into the market and try to bring in another big star or do they put their faith in the promising crop of Australian youngsters and the likes of Berisha – recently lured from Brisbane to Melbourne Victory – to build a new generation of box office names.
Currently some of the biggest Australian stars are still based overseas, with Robbie Kruse, Mille Jedinak, Matt Ryan and even Tim Cahill at the New York Red Bulls still commanding more interest than many A League players. The current crop of youngsters are undoubtedly talented but are still several seasons away from becoming true household names.
Every league needs its superstars if it’s to thrive – even La Liga and the Premier League – and that’s especially true of younger, growing competitions such as the A League. Much as it would be an idealistic aim to have homegrown players as the faces adorning posters, another Del Piero would still make a difference on gate numbers but an extra couple of thousand.
Yet there’s no shame in utilizing your marquee signings. Any name that helps the sport to grow is no bad thing and while Australian clubs can capitalize on the current profile of the competition, signing a new version of Del Piero or Ono may be necessary to keep that momentum going, at least until the new generation of players becomes as big a names Down Under as Mark Viduka or John Aloisi.