Alessandro Del Piero's ability to revitalise the A-League and breathe more life into Australian football will get its first test tomorrow, incongruously, in New Zealand.
The former Juventus and Italy star, now 37, will travel with the Sydney FC squad for their season-opening match against the Wellington Phoenix in what may be an early and revealing examination of the box office buzz which local officials hope the league's most expensive and high-profile signing will generate.
Del Piero's potential A-League debut has already boosted ticket sales in Wellington - the A-League's only offshore outpost - where professional football has a precarious foothold. But that may only translate tomorrow into crowd of about 14,000, a faint hint of the supporters he has played in front of at Europe's famous football venues.
Still, there are early signs that Del Piero might well have the star power to lure back to football and to the A-League those fans who may have become disenchanted by the league's financial problems of recent seasons which led to the dissolution of clubs such as Gold Coast and North Queensland.
And his mission is not a lone one. The signings by the Newcastle Jets of the former England striker Emile Heskey and by the league newcomers Western Sydney of the Japan star Shinji Ono has added additional shine to the 2012/13 competition and have helped to boost its international profile.
Already, simply because of Del Piero's presence, Sydney FC's matches are being televised live in Italy and the club have already topped their record for season membership. The A-League, now in its eighth year, has a chance with its high-profile signings to shed a provincial image and to become a popular destination for leading players near the end of their careers.
"There is a train of thought that each club should have a player of similar ilk," Gary van Egmond, the Newcastle Jets coach, told the Australian media. "One week we'd have Alessandro coming out [to play against Newcastle], the next we'd have Ono, the next week you might have a [Ryan] Giggs."
Ben Buckley, the Football Federation Australia chief executive, said the consecutive signings of Del Piero, Heskey and Ono had taken the A-League to a new level. Robbie Fowler and Dwight Yorke added some star power to the league, but in different seasons.
"We have had [top foreign] players before but never of such international star quality and class in such a short time," Buckley said. "You can sense the buzz right around the country. Season eight is like nothing we have seen before."
Sydney FC and Newcastle experienced immediate surges in membership when Del Piero and Heskey's signings were announced and sales of Del Piero's No 10 jersey are high.
"In terms of memberships we've beaten the record which was 7,500 and I'm confident we'll go on to beat 8,000" the Sydney chief executive Tony Pignata said. "I'm happy with that in terms of the market in Sydney and there's still 10 days before our first home game."
Newcastle have also felt a surge in interest since Heskey's signing.
"It's massive," Van Egmond said. "This is the most interest I've ever seen in the A-League since the inaugural season. Football and non-football fans alike are all talking about it."
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