Del Piero injects life into Australian League, but how long will it last?
Robbie Fowler never had it, neither did Romario or Dwight Yorke, but this is Alessandro Del Piero and whatever happens during his two seasons in Australia with Sydney FC, he will always be the first player in the A-League to get "The HeroCam" treatment.
For his home debut last Saturday against Newcastle Jets, Fox Sports decided to give viewers down under the option of watching the Italian and the Italian only for the full 90 minutes. They were rewarded with a moment of magic.
In front of 35,000 fans at his new home stadium, three times Sydney's average from last season, the 37-year-old scored a free kick that would bring a tear to the eyes of Juventus fans -- at least those who have stopped crying after his emotional goodbye in May after 513 games for the club.
The goal was the high point of a soccer treat for those watching at home and the continuation of a soccer education for his teammates. Nobody expects his colleagues to be at the same level, but at the moment, they are not yet on the same wavelength. Newcastle won an exciting game 3-2, helped by an Emile Heskey volley, to ensure that Sydney has lost both games this season.
That has barely been noticed amid the wave of excitement still washing over the country's soccer fans. Il Pinturicchio has lifted the profile of the league overseas -- the Sydney game with Newcastle received significant airplay in the international media, and Italian television has signed a deal to show Sydney's games -- but it is, of course, all about what happens at home.
The A-League has been exclusive to Fox since its inception in 2005. Viewing figures have not always been anything to get excited about, but the first round of the 2012/13 season not only broke the record for the highest number of fans to watch a single round of games -- 93,000 took in the five season openers -- but an average figure of 108,000 watched each of the five games on pay television.
Records are tumbling, and all the indicators are rising. According to Football Federation Australia (FFA), the overall ratings "mark an increase of over 35 per cent on audiences from last season and up 38 per cent on the corresponding round from the 2011-12 season."
"The huge audience growth in attendances, TV and digital is an early dividend for the hard work by our 10 clubs and the A-League management," FFA CEO Ben Buckley said. "The excitement generated by new marquee players and new coaches has been converted into fans on the terraces and viewers on screens."
If Fox Sports tweeted, "Forgive us for slapping ourselves on the back ..." after the first round's viewing figures, then Buckley could also be forgiven for feeling pleased with himself. It is only a start, but after some tough times, there is a feel-good factor in the A-League.
The mainstream media, still in love with those traditional Aussie sports such as Aussie Rules, cricket and rugby, now has something to talk about other than clubs folding, attendances falling and debts rising, when it talks about soccer.
It is all heady stuff. Not all, but a good deal of it is down to the "The A-League's Beckham." That is a convenient label, but it is how Sydney FC CEO Tony Pignata sold the team, city and country to the player during negotiations.
Few gave the club a chance. The Sky Blues had worldwide competition. It was always unlikely that the Aussies could match the money being waved the player's way ("bucketloads" according to Pignata), but what they could do was mention a word that has become increasingly trendy in sporting circles -- legacy.
Sydney offered Del Piero the chance to do something special. Not just for the two years of his contract but, went the argument, for years to follow. Soccer is already the most popular sport in terms of participation, but Del Piero could turn people on to the A-League, especially those who had always preferred to watch European soccer.
''We spoke about the impact he would have on the game here and that's what he wants," Pignata said. "He's not in it for the money. He wants a good wage, of course, but he's more about leaving something behind. The pitch was focused heavily on what he could do for the game in Australia, what he could do for the fans here. Much like what David Beckham has done for the MLS, 'ADP' could do for us in Australia.''
Del Piero may have won the World Cup and the Champions League, but it is unlikely he had received a hand-delivered letter from a Prime Minster before Julia Gillard joined fans of all clubs imploring him to make the trip down under. Rarely could a player have been so wanted, perhaps appealing after the rather brisk and unemotional way that Juventus president Andrea Agnelli brought down the curtain of 20 years of service in Turin.
"Everything is still in the embryonic stage," Del Piero told Italian media earlier this month. "Football in Australia has massive potential.There are a lot of fans: people of Italian decent, Greek, Croatian, as well as Australian. We will focus on youngsters, on helping the community and the A-League in general."
His impact has been considerable already. As well as the increased profile, media coverage, attendances, viewing figures and the fact that he is still a top-class player, Del Piero and Sydney have singlehandedly revived a marquee player concept that had become increasingly moribund. Now others have rediscovered the rule that allows a star player to be paid outside the salary cap. In the week following the deal, former England and Liverpool striker Heskey was on his way to Newcastle Jets -- he said he would never have signed had Del Piero not led the way -- and Michael Ballack was making eyes at Western Sydney Wanderers.
He wanted to come, the club refused, perhaps a measure of the newfound confidence and swagger that Del Piero has helped to inject. Shinji Ono signed instead, not a name to match the German's, but a big deal in his native Japan.
It goes without saying that what happens next is open to question. It is up to the clubs and the league to turn the new levels of interest and excitement into something that lasts longer than the two years Del Piero is around. Even if they can't, that free kick at least suggests that it will be 24 months to savor.