The protracted signing of Italian superstar Alessandro Del Piero to play for Sydney FC is, at a period of austerity for the local game, a timely shot in the arm. The club is already warning fans that the SFS will sell out as punters flock to see Il Pinturicchio in the sky blue.
Signings such as these raise several issues for the A-League. Is the cult of personality a sustainable business practice for fledgling clubs still establishing their identity? Do marquee signings strengthen the entire league? In particular, what happens now to the Western Sydney Wanderers recruitment drive? Nick Tana, the previous owner of Perth Glory, commented back in 1996 that the Australian domestic competition would only be as strong as its weakest link. This is as true today as it ever was.
While these are important issues, the latest coup for Sydney has reignited dormant calls that that we are ‘Bling FC.’ Certainly our club has had an unparalleled history in terms of marquee signings and national visibility. However, the Bling tag has not always sat comfortably with Sydney fans. The Sydney FC I know is a family club. Its occasionally high-flying façade is hardly the view from the stands.
For the past five seasons, to my right sits an old Greek man, who arrives precisely thirty seconds before kick off every week, take-away coffee in hand. I’d like to know his secret for negotiating the traffic so impeccably from Hurstville. To my left sits a blonde, sun-bronzed young boy and his old man, who pack their dinner in a schoolbag, put off by the exorbitant stadium food prices. In front sit two middle-aged men who, with comb-overs, loafers, smart shirts and weekend chinos look like bank managers. Watching them try to clap and chant in time with the Cove is often more entertaining than the on-field action. Bank managers clearly aren’t born with a natural sense of rhythm.
These rusted on members are as content watching Adam Biddle or Jamie Coyne as they are watching Dwight Yorke or Juninho. They are there whether the crowd registers 8,395 or 26,741. They even turned up to watch the New Zealand Knights. Considering this, is Bling FC a selling point? The argument is that the Sydney market needs high profile players and a visible ‘brand’ is almost uncontested. I can understand this to an extent. It is true that football is in the entertainment business.
However, what kind of entertainment are we after? Paul Roos’ ‘no dickhead’ policy at the Sydney Swans, coupled with effective on field performances, worked a treat in the AFL. Roos did more than Warwick Capper ever would to sell Swans memberships and establish the team into Sydney’s sporting culture. But can the same be said for football? When Ange Postecoglu booted resident dickhead Liam Reddy and veteran fat bastards Charlie Miller, Craig Moore, Danny Tiatto and Bob Malcolm from the Roar side in late 2009, it seemed to be a turning point in the league. The Brisbane Roar side was the perfect example of what the A-League should be; an enterprising local coach, a home for quality imports and Australian journeymen, and most importantly, a breeding ground and production line of young talent. Aside from Mitch Nichols, it was the closest thing the A-League had seen to ‘no dickheads’.
Up until last week Ian Crook appeared to be building a squad based on Postecoglu principles. Moving Nick Carle deeper to conduct the play, and signing players who look to provide perhaps the most balanced, mobile Sydney squad ever, it appears that this season is going to be based around ball possession, quick movement and efficient teamwork. But now that the fulcrum Nick Carle is smoking shisha in Durka Durkastan, how will the glorious Del Piero fit in?
I am not suggesting for a moment that ADP is a dickhead. Far from it. The bloke looks like Bruce Springsteen, and appears just as genuine. However, he is now unquestionably the star of the team. But the A-League is all about management. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. There has been no shortage of marquee players in that have wandered through the NSL and the A-League without leaving much of a long-term impression. Kevin Keegan, George Best, Dwight Yorke, Juninho, Robbie Fowler and Romario have all come and gone. The task, then, is for Sydney FC to turn the Juventus and Azzuri shirts at the SFS into Sydney shirts.
A man who packs his own lunch, or sports a comb-over, will never be Bling FC. I can’t wait to see ADP curl his first free kick into the top corner, but I’m equally relishing the chance to watch McFlynn scream at him to get back to defend, before misplacing a five meter pass and hurling himself wildly into un-winnable tackles. Like goldfish that have swum around the bowl, the press is already heralding the return of Bling FC. And when ADP leaves, they’ll surely be wondering whether ‘Bling FC’ is worth it. The challenge for Crook then, is to rise above his handsome number ten. Stars come and go, but style is the real test of Sydney’s credentials. Whether or not Del Piero performs, if the team plays honest, enterprising football, I’ll wager the fans will stick. In the meantime, I’m going to spend my next centrelink cheque on a Del Piero Sydney shirt.