The del Piero Dilemma (Or How An Azzurri Legend Hijacked A Club…But Not The A-League)

Okay, the title of this blog post may be a bit provocative, and of course I’m biased in my view due to my club allegiances. However, in the immediate and indeed long term wash-up over the ending of Alessandro del Piero’s playing career at Sydney FC there are some serious questions to be asked about the true value of his involvement in the sport in Australia, as well as his worth to the club he played for. Was ADP the greatest thing since sliced focaccia to hit Sydney FC, the A-League or indeed the entire sport of football in Australia in recent years? Was he value for money when it came to the expenditure made by Sydney FC’s owner, particularly in light of the definitive lack of success the club had on the pitch during his tenure as their marquee? Has del Piero been as noble in his crusade for football in Australia as some would have us believe, or has his stint down under been a clever marketing ploy by a professional footballer who wanted to maximise his income and brand? What will be his legacy at Sydney FC or indeed for the sport as a whole in this country? Bottom line; was del Piero worth all the dosh, hype and attention?

Taking the playing for his club view first, I don’t think that anyone could find fault with the argument that del Piero added plenty of quality to Sydney FC, particularly in his first season in 2012/13. However his individual achievements and ability to do very well as a mature overseas marquee for the Sky Blues could not counterbalance certain salient problems with his club. As I and many others have argued before Sydney FC’s dysfunctional structures in terms of recruitment policies, coaching attitudes, club culture and a player group that has far too many passengers for the money spent on them meant that for much of his time at the club del Piero was a bit like the boy of legend with his finger in the dyke. Whilst his set piece work was of the highest quality, and his ability to encourage and arguably serve as a leader for his fellow players at SFC will be well thought of by many, there have to be doubts as to whether he was more than just a band aid solution; a tiring fulcrum that a faulty machine tried to lever off. Whether it was his coaches or himself, or perhaps a combination of both as well as the influence of his team mates, with ADP in the Sydney FC line up they became far too focused on his role and work. There were times when it brought major dividends (as recently as the Round 25 game of the current season between Sydney and Wellington). However these matches and the synchronicity of a magisterial ADP combining with effective football from his team mates were far too infrequent. For every match where he bamboozled defenders such as the opening match of the 2013/14 season against the Jets whilst the likes of Abbas, Carle, Garcia and Petkovic backed him up, there were games like the second SFC versus Wanderers derby of 2013/14. In that match he was kept far too quiet for his club’s needs by a much younger opposition player (the Wanderers’ Daniel Alessi) and then when subbed not only did his departure indicate a degree of disharmony within the squad and coaching staff, things went off the boil on the pitch quickly as well, ending in yet another derby loss for the Sky Blues. Admittedly there were times when del Piero’s absence had his fellow Sydney FC players rise to the occasion (as they did in the third derby of 2013/14 against the Wanderers), but on the balance he could neither carry the burden of a stuttering squad for as long as or as well as needed, nor could his team mates match his mercurial brilliance with enough frequency. To put it bluntly, Sydney FC could never escape the problems of effectively being a one man team in the ADP years.

Another issue for Sydney FC in terms of its playing structures and achievements during del Piero’s tenure was the diversion of philosophical and tactical energy away from establishing an attractive and successful system into keeping del Piero on the pitch in some role, whilst at the same time coaching problems festered and leeched away support. If one was to look at opposition clubs that achieved more success over the last two seasons it would be fair to say that not allowed their style of play nor their squad’s playing philosophy to become a servant to one man. Coaches such as Tony Popovic, Kevin Muscat, Mike Mulvey, Graham Arnold, Ange Postecoglou, Phil Moss and Josep Gombau were not afraid of putting their best and/or most iconic players into a tactical and/or cultural framework that served long term visions. Shinji Ono and Thomas Broich are two examples of international players with far less cachet as imported ‘stars’ than del Piero who were coached as part of a team, instead of being allowed to form an identity or a diversion apart from the team’s energies, its focus. Both Arnold and Moss never had anyone approaching del Piero’s skill or fame in their Central Coast line ups these last two seasons, and I would argue they achieved more than del Piero’s Sydney FC not in spite of such a disparity of talent but because of it. Even lower placed clubs with less success than Sydney FC, such as Melbourne Heart or Wellington Phoenix seemed to do better with their major players (i.e. Orlando Engelaar and Carlos Hernandez respectively) integrating into club’s playing culture. No one saw stories about Ono, Heskey or Broich being touted as a potential replacement for their respective coaches as del Piero was for Frank Farina.

From my perspective (and of course I am only a layman with an affirmed prejudice against Sydney FC) del Piero’s most significant role for his club seems to have been less about adding to his club’s achievements on the field, and more about serving as a brand or marketing tool for Traktavenko’s investment. It could also be argued he has been far more important for the FFA in the same context than his technical ability on the pitch encouraging or leading domestic A-League players to improve their standards accordingly. Whether we’re talking the amount of ADP related merchandise sold on behalf of Sydney FC, the links back to Italy for the club and the FFA through broadcast deals or tours of del Piero’s homeland, or the FFA’s use of the Italian legend in their advertising, del Piero the footballer seemed to take a back seat to del Piero the sales tool.

Alessandro del Piero and Shinji Ono launching FFA’s Summer of Football 2013/14

Now far be it from me to criticise either Sydney FC nor the FFA for wanting to make as much out of such an iconic and important player to promote their respective business interests in football in Australia. However assuming the $8 million value of his contract is correct how much was del Piero’s value worth in terms of media exposure compared to such expenditure? Also how much value was wrought from the success of the Western Sydney Wanderers as a club in 2012/13, compared to del Piero’s impact when it came to promoting the A-League and football? After all, whilst del Piero sold plenty of shirts and was featured in heaps of ads, Sydney FC were unable to get more than 60% of the same membership numbers that the Wanderers achieved for 2013/14. The Wanderers have had a real presence in Asian football due to their success in the ACL and their signing of the far cheaper Shinji Ono, whilst del Piero and Sydney FC have barely scratched the surface of engaging with the most important regional market for football and for the A-League.

At this point I must say that I don’t believe the more cynical perspectives of del Piero’s presence in the A-League; that he has been more an advertising cypher, a constant diver who made Sydney FC’s obvious deficiencies even more stark through his performances on the pitch. There has been a remarkable growth in the focus on football and the A-League in this country since 2012/13 which he has in no small part contributed to. There will be thousands of people who have gone to games with del Piero playing, or to off-pitch events that he has attended and they will hopefully feel more attachment to the game and the A-League than if del Piero had not come to Australia. Yet I am not going to adopt a Pollyanna vision that some media pundits may take when they look back on the ADP experience.

Perhaps my ambivalence towards del Piero can be best discussed in the context of the Round 24 match between Adelaide United and Sydney FC at Coopers Stadium on March 21st 2014. At this game the local fans came out in their thousands to see del Piero and show their appreciation for his playing in front of a sizable expat Italian community. Whilst all this affection for the visiting marquee was visually and possible emotionally exciting, the actual game saw Sydney FC utterly outclassed by Gombau’s Reds, with a far less famous or expensive player for the home team (Carrusca) bossing the visitors. As for the hero of the local Juventus fans, he was subbed at the 65th minute. In my opinion it is hardly the best result for all concerned that del Piero engaged far more effectively with people who may be more fixated with a European icon and his club than their local team, and that team played some of the most attractive and efficient football in 2013/14 (especially in contrast to Sydney FC).

ADP at Coopers Stadium for the match against Adelaide, Round 24, 21/3/14

Regarding del Piero’s legacy, I am of the view that his will be far more fleeting and less substantive than others may believe. His tenure as Sydney FC’s marquee would no doubt have resonated far more if his celebrity and individual quality has been accompanied by wider club achievements in the A-League. I also am of the opinion that because his presence in the Sky Blues seemed to affirm the ‘bling’ aspect of their culture whilst reinforcing popular attitudes regarding their cargo cult attitude when it comes to recruiting stars, del Piero’s legacy is going to be less than his boosters would hope. How much money and goodwill has been pissed away by Traktavenko, Barlow, Pignata and Farina through the conduit of del Piero’s celebrity and marquee status contrasted with the grassroots community achievements secured by the Wanderers? Or the small budget, highly motivated squads at the Mariners? Or the Roar and Victory’s approach to creating squads with more uniform standards of achievement and skill?

In light of this I fear that unless something is recruited by Sydney FC along similarly expensive and individually illustrious lines there will be a significant falling off in appeal for the club, and perhaps by association the sport in Australia. Thankfully the continued success of the Wanderers, the major investment by Manchester City’s consortium in the Heart, and major international tournaments for the Socceroos such as Brazil 2014 and the AFC Cup in early 2015 will keep people focused on our sport. However for me the bottom line is that del Piero has been a missed opportunity, reminiscent of those days when a huge European club would come to Australia and play the national team for a few exhibition matches, then return home with as much money as they could gather from their excursion in their bank account. Surely the way forward for the A-League and for our sport to grow is not through enlisting temporary excitement through legends of the game such as ADP, but building successful clubs and domestic cultures built around Australian players who both learn from more accomplished foreign team mates whilst teaching their junior squad members.

A-League 2013/14: Round Twenty Review

(As promised here is the first of several hideously overdue reviews of this season’s A-League rounds)

Central Coast Mariners Vs Wellington Phoenix (1-4 Wellington Phoenix win)

The Wellington Phoenix arrived in Gosford on the back of a disastrous result at home against the Heart, and with the home team boosted by the arrival of new Korean import Kim Seung-Yong, the return of the prodigal Bernie Ibini, and Eddie Bosnar injected into the starting XI, all expectation was that the visitors would struggle for the points. Ibini’s well taken goal in the first half must have further emphasized the improbability of a win for Kiwis, however whatever Ernie Merrick said to his charges at the half time break must’ve been like a shot of peptides to an Essendon footballer. The first riposte from he Phoenix came via Kenny Cunningham, who profited from a deflected pass that arrived in the right place for a driving shot past Liam Reddy. Then, to the frustration of Mike Sterjovski the Mariners’ revisited their penalty taking problems from last season when he failed to slot the ball into Moss’s net a scant 3 minutes later. The heroics of the All-White’s keeper was surpassed in the 63rd minute when Hernandez shot the ball into the Mariner’s net, it’s swerving curving flight path rocketing past a helpless and hopeless Reddy to be buried into he top right hand corner. The role of the Costa Rican in the revival of Phoenix’s fortunes at this stage of the 2013/14 season cannot be under-estimated. Then, to add further unhappiness on the local fans, the third key foreign player for the Phoenix, Belgian Stein Huysegems, was able to tap the ball into the net. More pain was to come to with only ten minutes of regulation time to go, when Huysegems had all the space in the world to deliver a cross for Jeremy Brockie to score the fourth and final Wellington goal. There is no doubt that this resurgence from the Phoenix in this phase of the 2013/14 season was remarkable, yet to bury last year’s grad final winners in the style that they did in this match was stunning. As for the Mariners, there current iteration as a squad is still to demonstrate their collective worthiness contrasted with those teams coached by Graham Arnold.

Newcastle United vs Sydney FC (0-2 Sydney FC win)

For whatever reason this season has seen these two teams meet with the team in red and blue promising a lot before the game, and then after much huffing and puffing they end up coming off second best to the Sky Blues who have in turn never looked that competent. There is no doubt that when the Jets attack focused on Adam Taggart fires they are in the hunt, and when he fails to hit the mark the Newcastle defence and midfield must rise to the occasion otherwise it’s all over red rover. This was the case in this match which looked far more attractive in the first half passages of play than was deserved by the Hunter Stadium pitch. Both Janjetovic and Birighitti were threatened by some useful shots on goal, yet neither Sydney FC nor the home team could break the deadlock. With the older brigade under Frank Farina doing their best to subdue one of the most promising group of younger players in the A-League, it took a set piece and one of the most senior Sky Blue players to start the scoring. Ognenovski rose to meet a corner in the 60th minute and his effort at beating the Jets defence was rewarded with a worthy goal. Arguably less worthy was the penalty given by the referee to Alessandro del Piero against Taylor Regan, but if there is one thing you can count on the ex-Juventus star will never shy away from doing all he can in the box when it comes to getting a chance to shoot on goal. In this instance it was a spot kick that sailed past Birighitti, leaving the home team once more behind against Sydney FC. There was a momentary flurry involving Taggart for the home team, however once more in 2013/14 when Sydney FC and Newcastle United met the points went down the F3 to the harbour city.

Melbourne Victory vs Adelaide United (4-3 Melbourne Victory win)

There are some wonderful rivalries and big games developing a real heritage in the short history of the A-League, and the duels between the Victory and the Reds are certainly up there for passion and pride. Therefore it was entirely appropriate that this game was possibly the best of the 2013/14 season so far when it came to open goal scoring between finely matched opponents. Whilst Gombau’s squad has plenty of reason to present an argument for being the most stylistically attractive team going forward in attack, with the goal from Cirio within the first four minutes of this game serving as evidence for such a proposition, they are also one of the least convincing defensively at times. Hence the manner in which they opened up too much space in front of the box at the 14th minute allowed Gui Finkler a chance to level the scores. His shot was exquisitely executed and as it was buried into the back of Coe’s net the Brazilian had shown yet again how important he is to Muscat’s team. The first half didn’t end there when it came to goals; in the 44th minute it was that man Cirio again for the away team, assisted in his scoring by the player who I think really has gotten Gombau out of his critics’ bad book, i.e. Bruce Djite. For all the flair and style of the Latin tiki-taka possession system Djite is the much needed hard working, direct playing complement that drags the Reds into the opposition’s box.

With a 1-2 scoreline at half time the attending fans of both clubs would’ve been happy with the quality of football on display, yet the second half arguably saw a good match become unforgettable. The home team was dealt a blow with the substitution through injury to Tom Rogic, yet a scant five minutes later Finkler echoed Cirio and sunk his second goal of the match, tying things up at 2-2. With yellow cards flying everywhere and injuries piling up the next goal came from a howler committed by one of the best A-League goalkeepers going around; Galekovic scuffed a clearing kick outside the Reds box and in the resulting chase down Archie Thompson did what he loves doing, scoring a goal against Adelaide in from of a home Victory crowd. Obviously defensively the match was a bit of a lost cause, with neither the Reds nor the home team showing a water-tight back line, yet no neutral or home fan could complain when Rogic’s replacement Kosta Barbarouses first set up Finkler for a chance to score, who then assisted Troisi to then pass back to the Kiwi Victory player who tapped into the net for a 4-2 scoreline. Then, to bring the match to a frisson in the 82nd minute Cirio took advantage of a slip from the bungling Pablo Contreras to put the ball past Coe, scoring his hat trick and leaving the match open for at least 8 minutes of regular time. The scoreline didn’t change, which perhaps was unfair to the visitors, thus leaving the Reds joyless and without any points even though they had scored three goals away from home. There is no doubt this was a classic match, and both teams have much to look forward to come finals time.

Perth Glory vs Western Sydney Wanderers (0-2 Western Sydney Wanderers win)

The last game on the Saturday night was played in Perth’s nib Stadium, and once more the club that once was the pride of domestic football in this country demonstrated how dysfunctional and sad they have become, in no small part due to a fractious player group not held in check by an owner who has little grasp of what to do. The Wanderers had traveled without several of their usual key players including for the first time in their short history Ante Covic, and this gave Jerrad Tyson an opportunity to don the gloves for an A-League game since he last played for the now defunct Gold Coast United. However whilst several of Popovic’s usual starters were missing one of the regulars for the Wanderers was there to score a nice goal in the 11th minute, with Matteo Poljak shooting from outside the box and beating a diving Danny Vukovic. The Glory’s goal keeper was certainly one of the better aspects of the match for the home team, whereas almost everyone else playing under Kenny Lowe’s direction looked slow, aimless and disjointed. Kwabena Appiah was terrorizing his Glory opponent on the right flank, whilst Labinot Haliti was not much less difficult to stop on the left. However the potential for a greater lead to be established by the Wanderers didn’t come to fruition until deep into the second half, when French marquee William Gallas committed one of the most farcical errors in front of goal ever seen in Australia:

Tomi Juric made the home team pay for their errors and at 0-2 down it was as if someone told the Glory players that now they should start playing football. There had been a moment before Gallas’s cock up when Jerrad Tyson had to wrestle for a ball that almost trickled into the visitors goal, but that had been the only scare. However in a frantic last quarter of an hour the home team tried to rescue the match. Even Vukovic gave his all with a stunning attempt of a bicycle kick in the 88th minute that was not far off target. Yet even his heroics would do nothing to change the result. The Wanderers had once more demonstrated their mastery of the Glory, and with this win edged closer to the Roar. For the Glory it was yet another backward step in a series of many in 2013/14.

Melbourne Heart vs Brisbane Roar (1-0 Melbourne Heart win)

In every season there will be a game that makes you scratch your head and go ‘I didn’t expect that’. There have been a few 5-0 thumpings in 2013/14 to warrant such an expression, but this single goal victory from the Heart is just as deserving, especially considering how strong the Roar have been since week one and how dire Heart were until the replacement of John Aloisi. Much of this improvement must be put down to the influence of one player who was unavailable to Aloisi and who returned to fitness for John van t’Schip; Orlando Engelaar. The huge Dutch man-mountain was there when need in the 60th minute of this match, which until then had been a story of Heart semi-chances and the quietness of the Roar. Whilst the home coach was getting decent traction out of a squad that was stable from the previous round’s victory, Mike Mulvey had wrung some fairly ineffectual changes. This dire position for the visitors was put into more sharp relief when Engelaar connected with a lovely pass in the box from Dugandzic, toe-lobbing the ball past Theo into the Roar’s net on the hour mark. Engelar could’ve increased the lead twofold when given the opportunity for an indirect free inside the Roar box however his hard struck shot cannoned off the wall of Brisbane defenders. From that point onwards it was all about the Roar trying to find an equaliser, which was most stunningly rejected by Patrick Kisnorbo in the 91st minute. His tackle on a rampant and primed Berisha scarcely centimetres in front of Heart goalie Andrew Redmayne was sublime; sliding in to dispossess the dangerous Albanian striker with a skill that belied previous efforts from the ex-Socceroo this season. Mulvey’s team failed in their quest to salvage a draw, leaving the Heart exultant in probably their best win of the 2013/14 season, and still hopeful for a finals berth.

Best Game: Melbourne Victory vs Adelaide. Seven goals, a hat-trick, history, passion…one of the defining games of the 2013/14 A-league season

Best Goal: Gui Finkler’s first goal for Melbourne Victory was a stellar combination of composure, accuracy, calm thinking and sheer outrageous skill. If he has missed his shot the Hernandez goal for the Phoenix over the Mariners would’ve taken the distinction.

Best Team: Whilst Melbourne Heart could be considered for causing a huge upset in beating Brisbane, and the Victory have some claim because of their win over Adelaide, the best performance this round belongs to Wellington Phoneix. To come back from a goal down at Bluetongue against last year’s GF winners and post 4 goals in an away win is a huge result.

Worst Team: Perth pure and simple. To wait until the 75th minute of a game to look even remotely interested in competing against an opposition team when in front of your own fans is simply unaccpetable.

Normal Service Resuming Shortly

Sorry for the lack of posts recently…work and the myriad engagements of the type experienced as a follower of all things red and black and Wanderers related has recently held my postings down to a dull since. However I promise to write up reviews of all rounds outstanding from the 2013/14 season plus fill the interweb with more unsolicited blog posts a.s.a.p.

In the interim please enjoy this video of from the night we said sayonara to Shinji Ono from Wanderland.