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.
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).
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.