No-one has created more excitement in domestic soccer than Alessandro Del Piero, and so far he has done it without kicking a ball.
Some big names – bigger even than his – have played in Australian club colours before.
But no-one of his stature has come for such a long haul with one club, and such a clear commitment to make a lasting difference.
Bobby Charlton made one guest appearance for Newcastle KB United in 1978 in the early days of a national league.
George Best played four matches for Brisbane Lions in 1983.
Kevin Keegan played a couple for Blacktown City in 1985.
They all created a stir but it was soon forgotten.
Dwight Yorke lit the place up, too, giving a revenue boost both to Sydney FC and the city’s nightclubs in the A-League’s first season.
Robbie Fowler stayed for two years, but with different clubs, playing one season for North Queensland Fury then another for Perth Glory.
Homegrown heroes like Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton were the toast of the domestic competition when they returned to Australia, but few players can hold a candle to Del Piero.
He is the real deal, a player of top-drawer international quality, and he is here to make a real impact.
Del Piero wants to be much more than an overnight sensation.
He has signed on for two years with Sydney FC, bringing his wife, three young children and his own trainer.
He is staying long enough to make a new life here, and has made it clear how serious he is about “the project” – playing football to win, and lifting the profile of the Australian game in the way David Beckham has in the US.
He is the reason that while Australia’s two biggest football codes prepared for a giant weekend of preliminary finals in Sydney and Melbourne, the wider football world wondered where on earth was Budgewoi.
The NSW central coast hamlet found itself the focus of keen interest, extending all the way to Italy and beyond, because it had been slated as the location for a round-ball practice match between Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets.
Not any old pre-season match but the one that might, just might, mark Del Piero’s Australian debut.
Forget the AFL’s Swans and Magpies, Hawks and Crows, and the NRL’s Bulldogs and Rabbitohs, Storm and Sea Eagles.
This man commands more global fame than any of them ever will, and a bigger salary, too, even at the age of 37. At a reported $4 million for two years, he is Australia’s highest-paid footballer in any code.
Del Piero mania gave Budgewoi its 15 seconds of fame but was always destined to end the dream prematurely, too. The Budgewoi Sports Ground and surrounding bushland is not quite the San Siro or the Stadio Olimpico, and the match had to be scrapped.
Del Piero may or may not appear in Sydney’s next trial match against A-League rivals Central Coast next Wednesday, but in any case it will be played behind closed gates at Sydney’s Allianz Stadium.
Which will make his legions of fans all the more breathless as they await his A-League debut in New Zealand on October 6 and most of all his home debut in Sydney a week later.
Del Piero was welcomed by a crowd of around 500 when he flew into Sydney airport last weekend.
He was applauded into and out of his first Sydney media conference.
Suddenly there was talk of Sydney FC matches being televised in Italy and maybe other European countries.
The Sydney Morning Herald changed its name and colour for a day to trumpet his arrival, appearing in pink as La Gazzetta Del Piero in a wonderful spoof of Italy’s top sports newspaper.
It reflected the excitement generated by a player who has won just about every honour available to him in the world game.
Del Piero scored a club record 290 goals in 19 years with Juventus, winning six scudetti, one Coppa Italia and a Champions League.
He is Italy’s fourth highest scorer ever with 27 goals from 91 appearances, and of course he helped win the ultimate prize, the World Cup, in 2006.
Australians aren’t likely to forget that in a hurry. The Azzurri knocked the Socceroos out in controversial circumstances, when Fabio Grosso’s infamous last-minute “dive” won the decisive penalty for an Italian team down to 10 men.
The memory still hurts, so when a journalist asked Del Piero the burning question – was it really a penalty? – there was a great heaving of chests.
After much umming and ahhing, Del Piero opted for the comedy route. To much laughter he said Grosso was so tired by the end of that match that the wind must have blown him over.
In more serious vein, he added: “But I think, after jokes, sometimes there are moments where you have everything (go your way). And for us 2006 was the perfect World Cup. Everything goes in the right place. That match especially. And that’s why we won.”
It seemed about as close as he could go to agreeing with the “we was robbed” brigade without actually saying so. He left his audience laughing, and emerged as a clear PR winner.
He also provided the human touch, revealing how he encouraged his four-year-old son Tobias to make the long trip to live in Australia by promising to show him some kangaroos.
He said he loved the level of expectation and pressure his arrival had put on his shoulders.
“I played 19 years with Juventus – and in Juventus you have to win every game, every year,” he said.
“Fortunately a lot of the time that happened – but all my life I play for winning. I’m here for winning.”
“Then we hope, about the A-League growing up – day by day … and this is hard work, but one of the objectives of all the people who are in soccer.”
He understood it was a young league and was aware the nation’s football background was based on post-war migration from European countries.
“Everybody I think has soccer blood,” said Del Piero, “and we hope to wake that up.”