An Italian in the A-League
Sydney FC’s latest signing of Italian superstar Alessandro Del Piero has given football unprecedented media attention, just a week before the rugby league and Australian Rules finals series.
The football cognoscenti and casual fans alike have universally praised the coup, labelling it ‘the biggest signing in Australian sport’.
They are probably correct. However, buried beneath the euphoric reaction lay some complex issues surrounding the arrival of ‘Il Pinturicchio’.
Is this the return of Bling FC? How will this signing engage ‘old soccer’ (read ethnic) fans? To what extent is the game willing to re-engage with its ethnic roots? Is the cult of personality good for Sydney FC, and the A-League as a whole? And where does this leave the Western Sydney Wanderers?
Nick Tana, the previous owner of Perth Glory, once observed that the domestic competition would “only be as strong as its weakest link”. In a salary-capped league without promotion and relegation, this is as true now as it ever was.
The rushed acceptance of a Western Sydney team for the upcoming season is an enormous gamble by the FFA. Former Socceroos coach Ralé Rašić has already labelled the timing ‘suicidal.’ Put simply, the Wanderers need to last, and not just for football fans in Western Sydney. Much of the A-League’s credibility hinges on its success in the west.
On Friday, Sydney Morning Herald reporter Sebastian Hassett commented in his column that “the Italian community, as much as any other ethnic community, was left out in the cold when the A-League arrived.” The signing of Del Piero, then, is seen as a harbinger to unite the tribes.
However, the estranged Italian fans in Leichhardt, Haberfield and Bossley Park were supposedly part of the Wanderers’ membership drive. Like Melbourne Heart down south, the Wanderers were meant to bring National Soccer League (NSL) fans to the A-League. Sydney FC’s gain is the Wanderers’ loss.
But is it healthy if Sydney FC sells out the Sydney Football Stadium, but only a few thousand stragglers bother with the league’s newest arrival at Parramatta Stadium?
The imminent arrival of Alessandro Del Piero has resuscitated discussion surrounding ethnicity and the role of ‘old soccer’ in ‘new football.’ In a recent piece for The World Game, Craig Foster encouraged the FFA to lift the ban on displays of foreign or ethnic symbolism.
Certainly, the banning of European symbols of ethnicity and nationalism has been a controversial move by the FFA. Former chief executive John O’Neill stated that “everyone in the city would be pitched together”, rather than participating on their own terms. Migrants and their children are now expected to assimilate into Australian clubs, rather than Australian fans into ethnic-based clubs.
The banning of national flags is perhaps a necessary, if heavy-handed policy to ensure that the A-League is seen as politically neutral within the broader community. Halfway-house changes to club names and logos in the old NSL made little difference to the perception of the game, and pleased nobody.
Sydney FC, thanks in no small part to the efforts of ‘The Cove’ supporter group, has established an attractive, broad-based and progressive identity. A few Italian or Juventus flags will not threaten the colossus that is The Cove on game-day, but they may encourage a more positive discussion and perception of the nexus between football and multiculturalism.
Roy Hay, Philip Mosely and John Hughson have all written extensively on the social and community role of so-called ‘ethnic’ clubs that participated in the now-defunct NSL. The anticipated re-engagement with Italian and other ethnic communities raises another important point. If fans of the old NSL do turn out at the Sydney Football Stadium, will they stay after ‘Ale’ jets back to Italy?
Is it possible for clubs such as Sydney FC to provide a ‘home’ for these fans, as well as a football team? There has been a lot of premature discussion about Del Piero’s ‘legacy’, but the groundwork needs to be done by the club and the FFA more than the man.
From the late 1950s up until the beginning of the new millennium, migrants generally set the direction of football in Australia. Clubs bankrolled and supported by migrants and their children were instrumental in the development of the first national league back in the late 1970s, and have provided generations of Socceroos. Theirs was a thankless task.
Football’s lack of penetration in Australia at a professional level was continually blamed on its perceived ethnic image. The game, by association with ethnics, became a kind of fifth column. However, following the Crawford Report and the subsequent moves by the FFA to ‘mainstream’ football, these ethnic clubs and their supporters were displaced.
There is no doubt that the A-League is a far superior product than the NSL in terms of commercial viability and national visibility. However, encouraging Australians of Italian or Croatian heritage to have a voice and providing them a home is the next, more difficult step in the game’s evolution. It shouldn’t be a case of all or nothing, ‘new’ versus ‘old.’
Del Piero is certainly not the first marquee signing to arouse such interest Down Under. George Best, Kevin Keegan, Malcolm McDonald and Eli Ohana all played in the old NSL, while Romario, Dwight Yorke and Juninho, not to mention Harry Kewell, Brett Emerton and John Aloisi have all lent their profiles to the A-League.
The cult of personality has not always been good for the game, which is prone to suffering an Antipodean insecurity. This time last year, historian Ian Syson suggested that “it is not immediately evident that the arrival of one superstar… will lift the game to a new level.” Too often, marquee and guest players have contributed little beyond their on-field performances.
Del Piero, however, arrives at a crucial time for the A-League, and appeals far more to ‘old soccer’ fans than previous arrivals. Historians Bill Murray, Roy Hay and Ian Syson have already begun the arduous intellectual task of documenting the game’s history in Australia.
Let’s hope Del Piero is a catalyst for a change in the relationship between A-League clubs and the communities that have sustained the game for so long. That would be his greatest legacy.