Here’s to you, Derek Piero…what a wonderful player

Date published: Friday 14th August 2020 1:29

He looks like Bruce Springsteen and he was just as sexy. Everybody loves Del Piero...

Alessandro Del Piero is the latest recipient of all the love…

 

Who’s this then?
Alessandro Del Piero is a 45-year-old Italian, born in Conegliano. A relatively diddy striker, in a 23-year-long career, he played for just four clubs: Padova, Juventus, Sydney FC and Delhi Dynamos. He played for his country 91 times. Widely held as one of the greatest players of his generation and absolutely one of the finest Italian players ever, he was a striker, a progressive creator, a free-kick and spot-kick specialist. He holds the Italian record for most goals from free-kicks in all competitions. His 346 goals is the second highest in Italian football history. He won the Serie A Italian Footballer of the Year award in 1998 and 2008.

While he started at Padova – playing 14 times for them – and wound up his career in Australia and India, his definitive spell was at Juventus, where he holds the records for most goals and most appearances, having played 705 games and scoring 290 goals. Our image of him – burned into our synapses – is wearing the black and white.

A classic Italian ‘fantasista’ playing as a 10, he was equally at home being a creative enabler as being an out-and-out goalscorer. He won six Serie A titles, the 1995-96 Champions League with Juve and the World Cup with Italy in 2006.

On top of a long, stellar career – playing on until 40 – he’s also appeared in an Oasis video, is pals with Noel Gallagher, does a huge amount of money-raising for many different charities and runs an LA restaurant called No. 10.

I had a pal who when he heard Del Piero’s name on TV for some time thought that Del Piero was his full name and that he’d abbreviated Derek to Del. Derek Piero sounds like a second-generation Italian who’d run a fish bar in Glasgow.

So here’s to Derek Piero. What a player.

 

Why the love?
Despite sporting fantastic burners, ADP was never a glamour player like Franceso Totti or Andrea Pirlo. We didn’t imagine him oozing the scent of limoncello and wild mountain thyme and he didn’t have the high cheekbones and louche haircut, but nonetheless, he was so cool. His was a more rough-hewn gritty, working-class charisma, one of sweaty, messy dark locks, physicality and a golden shimmer born out of his brilliance.

He played a game based on intelligence and vision married to a great close control and shooting ability. He was speedy and very strong despite not being the tallest. For someone who had skill to burn, he retained beef and power. If you look at him in profile, he’s built like a rugby league player: thick legs, knees like knotted ropes on a tea clipper and the sort of meaty arse that meant he wasn’t easily knocked off the ball and ensured when he struck a shot, he hit it with hellish power. His classic cut in from the left, and belt it with the right to either top corner became almost predictable and yet unstoppable because he hit the ball so true and so accurately. If you look at his clips, he hits that postage stamp so often.

In some ways he was a football student’s footballer. His gifts seemed the product of application as much as of inspiration. He worked hard and contributed in so many ways to the Old Lady’s success. He practised and practised, like David Beckham, who idolised the Italian, to get so good at free-kicks, so good that if he got one middle left, it seemed almost as good as a penalty.

The ‘Gol alla Del Piero’ became A Thing for a while, a term to describe his habit of cutting in from the left and curling the ball into the top corner, and the area of the pitch in which he worked his magic also became known as the Del Piero Zone.

Those dramatic goals really helped cement his legend very quickly at Juve and combined with a phenomenal work-rate, even as a young man, he had already attracted the ‘fantastica’ label.

He has a passing remembrance to Bruce Springsteen and it was a comparison that held some water. Both from tough working-class backgrounds who worked their ass off to get free from what has been assumed to be their destiny. As such, they also share a similar gritty humility. For all highs and accolades, they seem somehow grounded.

When scoring goals, he did a lot of running at the camera with his tongue hanging out, I always thought, in some sort of echo of Maradona’s most stoned days.

His penalty record of 50 out of 61 was behind only Totti and Roberto Baggio. It is the longevity and consistency of his career that really marks him out as special. He was still playing at 40 and in Serie A until 38. There are critics who say he never really reproduced his club form consistently for his country and that a major injury in 1998 robbed him of the skills that made him so fantastic earlier in his career. Given his later career included the 2006 World Cup win where he took the fourth spot-kick in the final and 2007-8 was his second highest scoring season, it seems unlikely.

He was never in the running for a Ballon d’Or at any point which seems strange really, but then Totti never was either. But personal honours flowed like a river past his door his whole career. Retiring in 2014 having started in Padova’s youth team in 1988, his career straddled the transition in football from old school hard to new school soft and he did it with some ease.

 

What the people love
ADP’s qualities remain as exciting today as they did back in the day, more so if anything. His peak years were an era of exceptional football played by exceptional players. An era before rule changes, over-scrutiny and an obsession with athleticism over all else, which allowed some of the most amazing talents the modern game has ever seen to flourish. Watch any of the clips I’ve put links to in this piece and you will see some breath-taking football, so it is no surprise that the post bag was substantial this week.

‘Saturday morning, Gazzetta Football Italia, @acjimbo with a cappuccino and a newspaper folded up as he acknowledges the camera, bowl of Coco Pops, del Piero masterclass incoming. He is Italian football to me, my favourite player outside of England along with Ronaldo from that era.’

‘When United were constantly taking on Juve in Europe in the late 90s and I was a child I held as much worry about Del Piero as Zidane. Man played with what felt like an effortless grace that you just don’t see from many footballers.’

‘First sticker book I ever had was the Scottish Premier League one for season 98/99 and there was a double page in the middle where they had world superstars and it had him, Luis Enrique, Paolo Maldini etc. Just a sensationally classy player both on and off the park.’

‘My son’s middle name is the anglicised ‘Alexander’ because of AdP. I’m an absolute sucker for a goalscoring No. 10, and he is by far my favourite player of all time.’

‘Dave Piero? Yeah I had him in the taxi once, decent bloke.’

‘I loved Del Piero. His perfectly sculpted sideburns, good looks, outrageous movement and delicate touch were captivating. He was the first non-English based player who I genuinely wanted to be. And his zenith after years of underwhelming internationally; the WC 06 semis and final.’

‘Great player with so many stand out moments at elite level…but forever sticks in my head him absolutely destroying Alec Cleland in a Champs League tie in Turin vs Rangers. Poor lad might still be looking for him!!! Oh and he loved a curled effort into the top corner!’

‘Another mid-90’s Football Italia favourite of mine. Stood out even at a time when Italy seemed to be blessed with an impossible numbers of brilliant withdrawn forwards. Alex Del Piero was a really special player. Somehow mates with Noel Gallagher as well, weirdly’

‘Heard he used to drive the same Lancia he got with his first pay packet to training every day. Not sure if that’s an urban myth or not.’

‘His goal vs Germany in 2006 World Cup semi final may well be the most joyous goal I’ve ever seen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3h7hHr8TPHg (watch how his first touch just caresses the ball beautifully. That’s real art. Ed. )’

‘Also, the 90’s sideburns. Glorious. Only he could pull them off.’

‘In ‘97 the football world was in awe of Ronaldo joining Inter Milan for a record fee. But Del Piero’s Juve won the league by five points. Revered as a God at Juve where he won everything, even the Serie B! Also helped Italy win the ‘06 World Cup & we loved him here in Sydney’

‘I recall reading in Four Four Two in the late 90s that as a kid he used to try to turn off a light switch in his garage by kicking a tennis ball at it. Or something like that.’

‘A FIFA cover star for their 2004 edition, stayed with Juventus during their relegation, a wand of a right foot especially when he stood over a free kick, one of those legends who deserved a Ballon d’Or.’

‘Apart from being a brilliant player, as teenagers we all tried to copy that thin line sideburn/beard he had. We obviously failed having barely started shaving.’

‘One of those players you’d have loved to have seen at your club. Just had it all. Was great to watch with or without the ball. In a Serie A filled with the world’s best he still stood out.’

‘What a player! Loved his trickery and skill on the ball. I bet there’s a load of retired Italian defenders still suffering with twisted blood from trying to stop him. A free kick from the left side of the penalty box was as good as a penno to this lad. Utter genius!’

‘Big fan of his Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai-style friendship with Noel Gallagher, neither speaking the other’s language but still getting on famously.’

‘When English football went premium, we got to see del Piero play most weeks on channel 4, it was an absolute treat, real world class player before they were in the EPL, sweetest left foot and a talisman for the old lady for so many years, scorer of v important goals as well.’

‘My favourite player. I managed to convince the Inverness branch of Inter Sport to sell me their France ’98 life sized cardboard cut out of him for £4. Then had an argument with the bus driver because he insisted Alex be put in the luggage hold. I fumed.’

 

Great goals, great assists
Just two clips this week, first great goals. Please watch them all. Look at how many times he hits the corner of the net and how hard he hits the bloody ball. The long distance power strikes, the first time piledrivers, the deft flicks. Those 30 yarders cutting in from the left, struck with his right foot are almost laughably unstoppable. It is a helluva goal CV.

All brilliant but imagine having all that under your belt AND the ability to be a provider as well. His assist reel is equally as stunning. I can think of few if any other massive goal scorers who could thread a pass like he could, who could pass it into space for a striker, who could beat defenders on the wing and cross it for a strike partner to net. Honest, man, it is like he is two players and both are supremely talented.

 

What now?
During lockdown our man was hospitalised in LA where he now lives, with kidney stones. Ouch. That’ll make your eyes water. His Italian
restaurant had to close to the public but very charitably, he kept the kitchen open to make food for medical personnel.

Aside from the restaurant he also owns the amateur football club LA10FC through his Edge Americas company, indeed he seems, like quite a few of his Italian contemporaries from the 2006 WC winning side to be something of a businessman and entrepreneur, perhaps not happy to merely fritter his life away playing golf and Playstation. He has always seemed to have a substantial cultural hinterland, having appeared in Italian comedy shows, as well as performing sketches with the likes of Gigi Buffon, Antonio Cassano and Allessandro Nesta and recording his own music.

Given he’s still only 45, it seems likely his life will continue to be full of new challenges which he will embrace with the same passion he played football with. That’s Mr Derek Piero, for you.. What a man.

 

John Nicholson

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