Sideburns fade and fall


By Max Grieve

It’s as hard for me to tell you this as it is for you to read it, but it wouldn’t be right for me to keep it from you until you’re older, harder, and have a greater control over your urge to take out your anger on government buildings and public art. Alessandro Del Piero isn’t entirely happy. I’m sorry to have taken an axe to your satisfaction with life.

It’s not complicated. Simply, Sydney FC aren’t very good, and Del Piero is. The Italian is cutting an increasingly frustrated figure – he could be playing for a poor team in Qatar and making millions more. The A-League is curiously competitive, and has already seen seen four different championship winners in its eight-year history, though the success of the major cities, Melbourne and Sydney, is vital to the greater success of the league – even more so now, given the international coverage that Australian football has been receiving since Del Piero’s arrival. While he has been one of the most watchable players in the league this season, Sydney are diving to new depths of mediocrity.

"Put a sh*t hanging from a stick in the middle of the stadium," said then-Real Madrid coach Jorge Valdano in 2007 of Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool, "and there are people who will tell you it’s a work of art. It’s not: it’s a sh*t hanging from a stick." There are no such delusions as to what Sydney FC are presenting to the league and the watching millions.

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Roy Hodgson, are you watching?

By Max Grieve

Unless you’ve been staring directly into the Sun with your ears sealed up by industrial grade cement, you’d have seen or heard that Emile Heskey scored a bicycle kick over the weekend.

Perhaps I’m being generous – any ‘bicycle kick’ is, of course, subject to conditions. Heskey didn’t so much push off the ground as lift his legs out from underneath his body and fall gracefully, but the kicking motion wasn’t so horizontal as to label it a scissor kick. It was a “Bicycle Kick Presented by Emile Heskey” and the world smiled.

A boom rang out across the country as he fell back to Earth, and kangaroos scattered towards the sea, where there were sharks and jellyfish and crocodiles, because this is Australia; a land where everything is coloured red by dirt, blood or the backs of spiders. 

It was like watching a 1000-year-old tree falling from the skies. Heskey looks hot, and altogether weary of the world. His muscles were sculpted by overzealous stonemasons, but he doesn’t seem to want to use them. His eyes are tired and heavy, and he struggles to point at things with any enthusiastic intent. Emile Heskey doesn’t look as though he really cares for football any more, but then he kicks his feet over his head, and trots away; delighted.

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Del Piero and Heskey; stars on the ground

By Max Grieve

Del Piero scored a free kick. It was really good.

Given that there is no definitive ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ in space, as far as we can tell, Australia isn’t really ‘down under’, is it? Of course, that doesn’t stop the headline writers referring to the country as though it’s clinging on to the underside of the Earth for dear life, or otherwise exists as a land mostly occupied by red dirt and kangaroos – and it is – and is altogether otherworldly.

Perhaps it is, because on Saturday afternoon in Sydney, Alessandro Del Piero scored a free kick , and Emile Heskey a volley (think 5% Balotelli v. Ireland in the Euros, 95% typical Heskey) in the very same match, on the very same stretch of grass. After a opening weekend that drew 42,000 people to the Melbourne derby between the Victory and the Heart, but disappointed when people looked to the stars, this was what the A-League was waiting for. 

Those watching at home could split the screen and watch ‘Hero Cam’, a live homage to Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait; taking in 85 minutes of impish, darting movements, and five minutes of celebration and grace as the Italian scored in jet black boots – you know it makes sense – then went about being the King of Charm and Poise as Sydney chased the game. Heskey did as Heskey does; and spent his time on the field rampaging towards goal, rampaging towards the far post, rampaging along the sideline, and eventually rampaging – well, trudging slowly – towards the bench. 

Did I mention that Del Piero scored a free kick?

It’s altogether likely that your interest in Australian football doesn’t go far beyond what Del Piero and Heskey are up to, but there are other teams, too.  Japanese star Shinji Ono signed for the newborn Western Sydney Wanderers (a club with a brilliant crest and a Flamengo-esque kit), and will take part in the very first Sydney city derby next weekend. Strange as it might seem, WSW already enjoy an intense community support, and a sellout crowd is expected. Elsewhere, the Victory let in five against the champions Brisbane Roar, as current Melbourne ex-Brisbane coach Ange Postecoglou claimed his side had been ‘beaten by the better team’, the team in question being the one he took to the title last season. 

The rest of the league is going along as it always has. What the majority of the A-League lacks in star quality and world class skill, it more than makes up for with a natural tendency to be violent within the rules, and an inevitable ten minute frenzy at the end of every match.

Also, Del Piero scored a free kick. It was glorious.

To the Ends of the Earth; and Sydney

By Max Grieve

The men in the studio in Sydney were waiting to cross to Turin for the press conference, but Del Piero hadn’t arrived yet, so they spoke about him for half an hour. There were no ad breaks; no montages; just three sports presenters sitting behind a desk talking about a man who none of them seemed to know that much about beyond what they had on papers in front of them.

They spoke of his divine sideburns, of his celestial right foot, of his relationship with the people, of the World Cup – with an inevitable reference to that game. They spoke of his role in Juventus’ 1995 Champions League success, of Calciopoli, and of his ability to send a ball arcing into the far corner of the goal like no other player can. Though they spoke for what seemed like an age whilst waiting to cross to Italy, they never looked like running out of superlatives.

Alessandro Del Piero could have had millions more on the Arabian Peninsula or in China; he could have played in better leagues, but he chose Sydney. It’s not overly difficult to understand why. For the next two years and at the end of his career, Del Piero will live in one of the great cities of the world. He comes to Sydney as the highest-paid footballer – and that’s to include Aussie rules, rugby league and union – in Australian sporting history. He also brings with him the potential to change the status of the game in a sporting nation amongst the best on the planet.

There is a sense in Australia, amongst that relative minority that watches the A-League, that Del Piero could be our Beckham; introducing the national league to new audiences, both domestically and abroad. Indeed, he has the ability to revive the Italian community’s interest in Australian domestic football after a significant period of relative inactivity following the demise of the old National Soccer League and the subsequent decrease in stature of those clubs based largely around ethnic groups such as Italians, Greeks and Croatians.

Unknown to a great majority of Australians until only a few weeks ago, Alessandro Del Piero now has the attention of a nation. It’s all a little strange, and wonderfully exciting.

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