It was heralded as the greatest coup in Australian football history. When Sydney FC signed Alessandro Del Piero in September 2012, they created global headlines. There had been marquee players in the past: Dwight Yorke signed for Sydney FC in their inaugural season, Romario played a few games for Adelaide United in 2006, Robbie Fowler played for North Queensland Fury and Perth Glory. But Del Piero was different. The man who had become almost synonymous with Juventus would continue his career faraway in the Antipodes, in the middle of nowhere. Del Piero and his management called it ‘Project Sydney’.
The welcome Del Piero received at Sydney Airport was unprecedented. A Sydney FC scarf was wrapped around his neck, a fluffy toy kangaroo stuffed into his arms. As he shuffled through the gates, signing autographs and smiling at the teeming mass of people, some wearing Juventus gear, others wearing the sky blue of Sydney FC, he told reporters that he was here to win titles. ‘I am here not for the end of my career but for the start of my new career,’ said Del Piero. ‘I want to win some. I play to win.’ His new teammate Brett Emerton said he couldn’t wait to go to training that week. The Sydney Morning Herald printed the back page in pink newsprint and completely in Italian, with the headline La Gazetta Del Piero, a tribute to the famous Italian sports daily. Even the famous rugby league writer Roy Masters’ article carried an Italian headline. Overnight, bookmakers slashed the odds of Sydney FC winning the title.
But what followed was less impressive. In Del Piero’s first season, Sydney FC finished seventh in a ten team competition. In April 2014, in Del Piero’s second season in Australia, Sydney FC were bundled out of the first round of the finals by Melbourne Victory. In two seasons Del Piero played just ninety minutes of finals football, while clubs less star struck and more organised won the silverware. In 2012-13, Sydney’s new cross-town rivals, Western Sydney Wanderers, won the premiership in their first season and became the sports story of the year.
The plan to bring Del Piero to Australia was hatched in the mind of a fan. Lou Sticca, one of Australia’s leading player agents and a long-time supporter of Juventus, was in Turin for Juventus’ last game of the season against Atalanta in May 2012. ‘They’d won the league the week before, and so that last game at home was a celebration of them winning their first championship after many years in the doldrums,’ Sticca told Leopold Method. ‘I got hold of Alessandro’s brother Stefano, who is his agent. Knowing I was in Turin, I contacted Stefano and said I’d like to catch up and discuss opportunities for Alessandro once he’s finished with Juventus.’
On May 11, 2012, a couple of days prior to Juventus’ match against Atalanta, Sticca met with Stefano in the foyer of the Principe di Piemonte, the hotel where Juventus have historically lodged. ‘I put forward Australia as an option,’ explained Sticca. ‘To be completely honest with you, he was professional not to laugh at me. He was bemused and surprised, almost bewildered. I walked away from the meeting thinking, well, it’s never going to happen. Stefano said they were going to explore all their options, and he didn’t think Australia would be something they’d consider.’
However, Sticca was relentless, and he continued to email Stefano regularly. ‘Every time I read something in the paper about Del Piero going to the MLS or something, I would write and offer my opinion and my help,’ explained Sticca. ‘I started to detect in the replies that perhaps what the media was reporting wasn’t really true, and I should keep at this.’
During this time, Tony Pignata, formerly the CEO of Wellington Phoenix, became CEO of Sydney FC. Scott Barlow, the son in law of Sydney FC owner David Traktovenko, became the chairman. After putting Del Piero’s name forward to several clubs in the A-League, Sydney FC were the first to jump at the opportunity. ‘As the interest level from Turin was increasing, I started to cut Tony [Pignata] in,’ Sticca said. ‘It got to the point where after a number of telephone and Skype sessions with Stefano and the management team we were told we needed to get on a plane over to Turin. Within a couple of days me and Tony took off to seal the deal.’
In Leichhardt in Sydney’s inner west, just off Parramatta Road, there is a small cafe called Bar Sport. In a street gradually losing its Italian heritage, Bar Sport exquisitely retains its character. The long bar stacked with panini and biscotti, the fire-engine red espresso machine, the marbled floor: this cafe would not look out of place in the streets of Rome or Turin. Owned by Joe Napoliello, the walls are decorated with Sydney FC, Socceroos and Italian club memorabilia. At one end the entire season results of the Serie A are carefully updated in chalk on a large blackboard, and on the opposite wall football is always on the television. Behind the bar are two framed Socceroos shirts from the 2006 World Cup, and between them sits a clock emblazoned with the faces of the successful Italian team. Indeed the colours of all clubs are welcome in Bar Sport, but whenever Juventus play local fans pack out the cafe, and Napoliello trades in his work t-shirt for his Juve jersey. I’ve seen him drop everything at the espresso machine to run around in the cafe, fists pumping and yelling like a madman after Juve score a goal. Not long after Del Piero signed for the club, someone cheekily etched ‘Alex Del Piero, 2012’ in wet cement just outside the entrance.
Napoliello grew up watching his local side APIA Leichhardt in the National Soccer League, and has been attending Sydney FC games since 2005. He can remember exactly where he was when Del Piero’s signing was announced. ‘As news was coming in I was having dinner with my parents,’ he told Leopold Method. ‘I couldn’t contain my excitement and social media was abuzz. I don’t think my parents had seen me that excited since I was a kid.’ According to Napoliello, customers wore their Juventus gear to his cafe for weeks after the announcement.
‘My immediate reaction was one of slight disbelief,’ Grant Muir, a leader of the Sydney FC supporters group The Cove, told Leopold Method. ‘It was hard to grasp that such a big name in world football was heading our way for two years. Suitable marquee signings are hard enough to find, but getting Del Piero was like catching lightning in a bottle. Once it was confirmed I found myself very impressed that my club had the ambition and commitment to make this happen.’
The air of goodwill and excitement, however, was punctured in Del Piero’s first match against Wellington Phoenix. Away from home, Sydney FC were disjointed and lost 2-0, succumbing to goals on either side of half time. ‘Right throughout the negotiations Alessandro and his brother and the management team kept prodding myself and Tony, asking if the team was any good,’ said Sticca. ‘As it turned out, they were so underdone that it was embarrassing. I’ll never forget the look on Alessandro’s face after that first game in Wellington. There was no question that the team just wasn’t at the right level.’
Del Piero’s first home game also resulted in a loss to Newcastle Jets. Yet it was an occasion that live long in the memories of those at the Sydney Football Stadium. Walking my usual route to the stadium from Paddington, across Oxford Street and down towards to the eastern side of the stadium, it was clear this was no ordinary fixture. Seemingly everybody had a shirt emblazoned with Del Piero’s name on the back, either recently purchased from the club store, or in the black and white of Juventus and the azure blue of Italy. I smiled at the men who had sat next to my father and I in the stands for the past seven seasons. ‘Where did all these people come from?’ we joked. The members were perplexed, but happy.
Before kick-off, The Cove unfurled an enormous banner with Del Piero’s face, the Sydney skyline and with the words ‘Il Pinturicchio: Paint it Blue’. ‘The idea came from The Cove tifo crew,’ explained Muir. ‘For us it was an opportunity to welcome our new marquee player, but also a chance to introduce The Cove to a new audience with no idea about Australian football and show them what we’re all about. It helped to counter the sad, clichéd kangaroo nonsense that the FFA doesn’t seem to be able to get past.’
Del Piero scored that day in front of over 35,000 fans, a trademark free kick from the area Gazzetta Dello Sport labelled ‘the Del Piero zone’. But Sydney FC lost 3-2. When Del Piero took a corner, the crowd swarmed in to take photos on their smart phones, but when Terry McFlynn – the club’s only remaining foundation player and captain – was substituted, he was jeered by many Sydney FC supporters on the sidelines. He would later forfeit the captaincy to Del Piero and slowly recede into the background. British author Oliver James once labelled Sydney ‘the most vacuous of cities,’ and their football club lived up to James’ prescription of a city struck by ‘the affluenza virus.’ Sydney FC aimed high, drove for big investment and big returns, but forgot about the product. Money couldn’t buy soul.
Signing one of the biggest names in world football brought extra pressure on Sydney FC, and the coach, Ian Crook, was the first casualty. Like McFlynn, Crook had been at the club from day one. Having aggressively courted Central Coast Mariners and former Socceroos coach Graham Arnold in the off season, only to have him get cold feet at the last minute, Crook was thrust into an unfamiliar role, and one that suddenly carried extra attention and expectation. He resigned just six rounds into the season. ‘I love coaching and I love this club but the head coach role is just not for me,’ an ashen faced Crook told the press in November 2012. ‘I always said that if the role started to affect me personally or my family or my ability to sleep at night I would make a change and that was happening so I wanted to do the right thing by the club.’ Crook was always a back-room man. An all-round nice guy, great with juniors, a man who was better suited as an assistant, he wasn’t ready for the Del Piero Show.
‘Ian blindsided us,’ Pignata told Leopold Method. ‘We’d lost to Melbourne, and basically he resigned the next day. He just felt that he couldn’t handle the A-League.’ In came Frank Farina, a champion player in the 1980s and 1990s and a former Socceroos coach. At the time, Pignata admitted ‘It’s not just about coaching. It’s about being the face of the club and handling difficult times,’ but added that ‘Alessandro has not caused any issues with Ian [Crook] or anyone else at the club.’ Farina became the club’s seventh coach in eight seasons, illustrating the severe instability that had been briefly masked in the excitement of Del Piero’s arrival.
‘We were rushed a little bit for time,’ Pignata told Leopold Method. ‘Out of the four or five we had on the table – I won’t go into the names, but we had some big names overseas – a lot were already in jobs and wouldn’t commit just for the one season. Frank was a local candidate, and we just felt that he could come and rattle the cage and get things on track.’
The next casualties, however, were more significant. Out went the football director Gary Cole and sports scientist Craig Duncan. The ‘structures in place’ that Crook had boasted about in September 2012 were crumbling or destroyed by December. ‘Frank [Farina] will be running the football department and the decision was that the role [of football director], regardless who was in it, was surplus to requirements so we’ve made it redundant,’ Pignata told the press at the time. Looking back, Piganta told Leopold Method, ‘some clubs have football directors. We just felt at the time that any decisions from a recruitment point of view would rest with the head coach. Simple as that.’
It wasn’t long before Craig Duncan was spotted in camp with the Western Sydney Wanderers, assisting the head coach and former Sydney FC defender Tony Popovic. In June 2014, Ian Crook joined him as assistant coach at the Wanderers. Back at Sydney FC, Del Piero trained with his own personal assistant, and was granted a private dressing room and trainer at Macquarie University.
The change of coach and backroom staff showed all was not well at the club. Before the new board took over, the football department had worked on a strategic plan with outgoing coach, Vitezslav Lavicka, in order to give the club some stability going forward. However, it is understood that months of planning by the football department were effectively thrown out of the window as Scott Barlow became chairman and assumed full control of the club’s direction. Barlow had his mind on short term popularity rather than long term strategy.
The philosophy shifted from putting in place long term plans to making things up on the go. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensued. It is understood that hundreds of thousands of dollars allocated to wages and the football department were cut before the 2012/13 season in an effort to save money. But when Del Piero came on the radar, the money was suddenly back on the table. The decision to sign Del Piero was made quickly and with the briefest of consultation with Crook, right after Nick Carle left for Emirati club Baniyas on a one year loan deal. The rush of activity left the squad lopsided and the recruitment strategy redundant. The club’s plan to reduce the average age of the squad was shelved. Why, for example, would Sydney FC have wasted a foreign spot on Krunoslav Lovrek – a Croatian midfielder who was supposed to play in the No10 role – if Del Piero was in the club’s sights? Who would play at the No6 position now that Carle had left?
The signing of Del Piero was a business decision first and a football decision second, and once the football strategy was sidelined, Farina was left with the unenviable task of finding solutions to these problems on the run. Jason Culina and Dimitri Petratos both left the club after arguments with management, and the club won less than half of their remaining matches.
Del Piero’s first season with Sydney FC was a paradox. While the team’s performance left a great deal to be desired, the club was in the headlines more than ever, and the crowds were healthy at an average of 18,637, a 57% increase from the season prior. Sponsors were brought on board, and the big end of town was engaged. Moreover, there was a snowball effect on the rest of the competition. Not long after the club announced Del Piero’s signing, Newcastle Jets lured former England international Emile Heskey, while Western Sydney Wanderers reversed their earlier reluctance to chase a marquee player and signed Japanese star Shinji Ono.
‘Alessandro’s arrival accelerated the Heskey deal, and it did the same thing to the Wanderers,’ explained Sticca, giving credit to Pignata for seizing the opportunity. ‘There is no doubt that Sydney’s capture of Alessandro changed the landscape and changed the future of the A-League at that point in time.’ Indeed the league went from having zero high profile marquee players to three in the space of a month. Del Piero, Ono and Heskey all stayed for two seasons, driving interest and investment in the game. But only Western Sydney Wanderers could truly say their marquee player was as effective on the field as he was off it. Where Sydney FC became a one-man show, Ono wasn’t guaranteed a spot in the starting eleven. He slotted into the Wanderers as part of the overall squad.
When Sydney FC played away from home, they were perfect guests. Crowds would flock to see Del Piero, driving revenue for the home team. Del Piero would delight the crowd with a few feints, some twists and turns, and maybe even score a couple, but Sydney FC would more often than not lose the game. Fans around the country clamoured to see Del Piero. The match between Sydney FC and Adelaide United in Adelaide on New Years Eve in was a case in point. Adelaide has a sizeable Italian community and is a hotbed of Juventus fans, but the game was anti-climactic as Del Piero pulled out with an injury and didn’t travel with the squad. ‘Look, I know that Adelaide had gone out and publicised Alessandro, but at the time Alessandro was a Sydney FC player,’ Piganta told Leopold Method. ‘His welfare is in our interest. He’s not really a circus.’ The timing of his injury meant he stayed at home in Sydney, where he tweeted about how wonderful the fireworks were over Sydney harbour.
When he finally took the field in Adelaide almost a year later, a section of the crowd held a huge black, white and gold banner reading ‘Welcome to Adelaide, El Capitano’. ‘In every stadium I was applauded, in every city the Australian public showed its appreciation and its eagerness to see me on the field,’ wrote Del Piero in his autobiography, Playing On: My Life On and Off the Field. ‘Lots of people, especially but not only Italian migrants, have thanked me for making this choice.’ Indeed Sydney FC drove attendances, television viewership and interest around the country. Sydney FC’s marquee player was their gift to the rest of the competition, but he made himself available only under his own terms.
This is an extract from Joe Gorman’s article for the Leopold Method Quarterly Edition. Click here to buy your copy or subscribe today.