Stars align for football in Sydney
It's taken seven seasons, much angst, and at least a couple of false starts, but Sydney is finally poised to re-emerge as the nation's most important football city.
Sydney is where it's at. Again. It's taken seven seasons, much angst, and at least a couple of false starts, but in the countdown to the new Hyundai A-League season, Australia's largest city is finally poised to re-emerge as the nation's most important football city.
The other state capitals may wish it otherwise, but at last the stars have aligned for Sydney to steer the agenda and define the narrative. Only the most parochial supporter would have a problem with that.
Alessandro Del Piero, of course, is the man who has changed everything. Like those wonderful slide-rule passes, or those off-the-ball movements that create space when there seems to be none, the timing of his move to Australia has been impeccable.
Arriving off the back off a championship-winning season with his beloved Juventus, when his currency remains high, into a competition which, right at this moment, needs exactly the sort of spark only someone of his stature can provide, proves Del Piero is just as smart off the field as on it.
Choosing Sydney FC, a club that needs “bling” even if it pretends it can do without it, simply underlines il Pinturrichio's uncanny sixth-sense.
The astounding response to the deal - both home and abroad - has made this the most-eagerly awaited season in the competition's short history. Yes, even more exciting than the inaugural campaign, in 2005 when Dwight Yorke was in Del Piero's shoes as Sydney FC's marquee star, and assumed the mantle of pin-up boy of the league. No disrespect to Yorke, but “ADP” is on another register as a player, and an ambassador. He gets it - all of it - in a way Yorke never did.
With Del Piero front and centre, the Sky Blues are set to be transformed. Word is, he returned $330,000 to the club on the first day of his employment. Almost single-handedly, he's ignited Sydney's notoriously-fickle football community - especially those of an Italian persuasion.
Tickets have flown out the door, corporates have jostled for boxes at Allianz Stadium, replica shirts have been are sold by the thousands, and newspapers have devoted acres of prime real estate to the A-League during the midst of the NRL and AFL finals series. But I say almost single-handedly - for there's another show in town.
Western Sydney Wanderers are the Hyundai A-League new boys and as fate would have it their entry has coincided with ADP mania. Their reaction shows they understand the dynamics of football, and how they, too, need to adjust. And that gives us even more reason to hope that, for the next eight months at least, Sydney is going to be a genuine football town.
On the same day Del Piero signed for Sydney FC in a five-star media event above the skyline of Turin, the Wanderers signed journeyman Iacopo la Rocca in an office at Blacktown Sportspark, without a camera, or a reporter, in sight.
The tale of two Italians, seemingly, was a reflection of two vastly differing philosophies. Sydney FC - big and brash - and Western Sydney Wanderers - careful and unassuming. Wanderers boss Lyall Gorman kept assuring us that big-name, big-earning, marquee were not really what the new club was about.
Fair enough and worthy enough. And even as Del Piero arrived to cast a shadow that stretched all the way to the Blue Mountains, the Wanderers steadfastly maintained their stance. Publicly, at least.
Privately, however, the club knew it might be swamped in terms of publicity - and relevance - if it didn't re-consider the options. And then the news broke that those options included Michael Ballack and Shinji Ono. All of a sudden, the Wanderers were being viewed in a different, more respectful, light.
The subsequent signing of Ono, who has the ability to draw in Sydney's substantial Japanese community, gives the Wanderers some crucial bargaining power as they steel themselves for the Hyundai's A-League's newest - and perhaps most significant - rivalry.
So now we'll have two superstars in Sydney (and a decent foil in Emile Heskey at Newcastle Jets) to drive the competition's profile and key metrics at a speed which would otherwise have been impossible.
That's what the right marquee players do. It's why they're so important at this stage of the competition's evolution. It's why Western Sydney have had to re-evaluate their priorities. The purists may not like it, but football is part showbiz. And in Sydney, where there are now 20 sporting franchises, the competition for the entertainment dollar has never been more intense.
At the end of last season, with aggregate losses of around $25 million, the owners were only talking about tightening their belts. Instead, David Traktovenko and Nathan Tinkler - and perhaps the FFA - have somehow found the money to hopefully give us the most impressive collection of marquee stars we've ever had. It's been a stunning transformation.
What we want, what we need, is the right reaction. In the old NSL, Sydney was the dominant force on the field. More clubs (13) and more titles (12) than anywhere else. But success on the scoreboard rarely equated to something far more important: sustainability. That's what Sydney FC are hoping to see from their substantial investment in Del Piero, and Western Sydney Wanderers hope to achieve by signing Ono.
It's not up to them, however. It's up to Sydney's 240,000 registered players and all those around them to reward the clubs that represent them by being interested and engaged.
In the NSL era, only Nothern Spirit - briefly - threatened to truly connect with the nation's biggest football community.
For seven seasons in the Hyundai A-League, it's been Melbourne Victory who have set the benchmark in that regard. If Sydney aspires to be a football city, there's never going to be a better time to prove it. Get out there are do your bit.
The views expressed in this article are purely those of the author and do not reflect those of FFA or the Hyundai A-League.
The Hyundai A-League 2012/13 season kicks off on Friday 5 October with the season-s first Melbourne derby at Etihad Stadium. Click here for tickets to all the matches.