Del Piero hasn't been kicked out

Was Alessandro del Piero 'kicked out' of playing in Adelaide on New Year's Eve, as some of the more excitable commentary suggested? I don't think so.

Was Alessandro del Piero 'kicked out' of playing in Adelaide on New Year's Eve, as some of the more excitable commentary suggested? I don't think so.

Is the Hyundai A-League a 'dirty' competition by inference? No.

The trials and tribulations of 'ADP' remain, understandably, a massive talking point. He is the crown jewel of the competition, the star of the show, the greatest player we've had grace our shores. Ever.

So when del Piero can't play, we suffer. Just like those passionate fans from Adelaide's large Italian community suffered when it became clear he wouldn't be on the pitch at Hindmarsh. Just like the fans in Gosford and Wellington were disappointed when he didn't show earlier in the season.

'ADP' is box office gold, and when he's missing the occasion loses some of its lustre. Hence the often emotional reaction.

Nonetheless, we need to take stock. Del Piero is 38, the oldest player in the competition. Three of the next four oldest players are goalkeepers. Where del Piero plays there's nowhere to rest, and nowhere to hide.

On our hard pitches, in the heat of the Australian summer, with some of the longest trips in world football as part of the equation, should we really expect 'ADP' to play every single game? Of course not.

It's a testament to his determination, and professionalism, that he's contributed so much already. Del Piero has played 11 of Sydney FC's 14 games, averaging 78.5 minutes per match. That's impressive endurance, by any standards. Throw in the five goals and one assist, and there's no doubt he's living up to his end of the bargain.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. Clearly, del Piero can still influence a game. So while he deserves respect from the opposition for what he's done, it doesn't mean he deserves a free ride. It would diminish the Hyundai A-League if del Piero was allowed to waltz through to goal, or if the opposition backed off whenever he received the ball.

There were signs of that early on - in the build-up to the season-opener in Wellington, there was much talk about which of the Phoenix 'enforcers', Manny Muscat or Ben Sigmund, might nobble him. Watch the tape of the game, and you can see Sigmund pull out of a tackle on 'ADP' around the nine-minute mark. Such generosity was never going to last.

Gradually, the marking got tighter, and the tackles got harder. To my mind, it was Melbourne Heart's visit to Sydney in early December which signalled that all bets were off. A couple of robust challenges from Jason Hoffman and Fred sent the message to the rest of the league. He's fair game.

Fair being the operative word. Nobody condones malicious, cynical, tackling. When it happens, it's incumbent on the referee to react. But you're never going to eliminate it entirely, nor is the referee going to get every decision right. I'd argue that percentage of poor challenges 'ADP' has received since coming to Australia is no worse than anywhere else. If you think the so-called 'ball-playing' leagues like Argentina, Brazil, Spain and Italy don't have players prepared to stop a key opponent by fair means or foul, you obviously don't have cable TV.

Anybody who plays the game like del Piero - or Tom Rogic for that matter - is going to be on the fault line. It's what the best no.10s have to do to be effective - delay the pass, run at defenders, take a shot in congested areas. In other words, they have to put themselves in the contact zone. For their troubles, they're usually the best-paid player in the team.

In the aftermath of Sydney FC's upset win over Central Coast Mariners, Frank Farina called for better protection of del Piero. So did Graham Arnold, on behalf of Rogic, for that matter.

But what exactly is protection? So far, del Piero has received more free kicks (38) than any player in the league apart from another creative genius, Thomas Broich.

The referees, presumably, are trying their hardest to protect him. Interesting that one of the most physical tackles del Piero has received came from Emile Heskey. Interesting, too, that one of the worst tackles I can remember came from Frank Farina on David Barrett. Interesting, as well, that going into the Mariners match del Piero himself had committed 17 fouls in 10 appearances. Truth is, it's the referees job to 'protect' every player, regardless of reputation.

This is the way I see it. If anything is going to hinder 'ADP' in the long-term, it's more likely to be age and soft tissue injuries rather than rough-house treatment from opposing defenders.

The Hyundai A-League is a serious competition with serious objectives. Results are as important here as anywhere. In that context, del Piero still reckons he's enjoying every minute of the experience. He's not asking for favours, so why should we give him one?