Sport is part of the fabric of Sydney, Australia, something that’s perhaps best illustrated by the multi-purpose ANZ Stadium—where five different sports are played—that was bristling with excitement as Juventus tackled the A-League All Stars this weekend.
Indeed, even in the days that preceded Juve’s friendly game with the Australian top flight’s finest, the streets of Sydney, plus collective mass of civilians and tourists alike were sprinkled with Bianconeri colors.
The Italian champions continued their globetrotting pre-season tour with a stop Down Under, and their visit has been met with an unavoidably fervent levels anticipation in the city. Throughout Sydney there have been banners erected, previews on television stations and chatter aplenty ahead of what was always going to be an enticing 90 minutes.
Much like in America, soccer has to battle with a plethora of different and more established sports to capture the attentions of the Australian public. But after being in Sydney and witnessing first-hand the hyperbole that has accompanied the arrival of the Bianconeri, there’s little to suggest that the sports’ popularity will do nothing but ascend in Australia.
And any lingering doubts were succinctly dispelled upon arrival at Sydney Olympic Park train station. The ANZ Stadium was emblazoned with the three colors of the Italian flag, as swathes of match-goers flocked towards the stadium, mainly donning the legendary black and white stripes of Juventus, but dotted around were various other strips from a host of different nations.
It was a genuine festival of soccer outside the stadium. Italian tunes drifted out of bars, children scampered around mimicking their favorite Juve players, and a former one too.
That’s because much of the focus pre-game was surrounding Alessandro del Piero. The former Juventus legend has been playing his football for Sydney FC since he left Turin two years ago, and somewhat fittingly, he was to play his final game in Australian soccer against his former employers.
Both sets of players welcomed the Bianconeri and Azzuri legend onto the pitch pre-match, clearly unanimously appreciative of the influence and significance of not only his glittering career for both Juventus and Italy, but his short spell in Australian soccer too:
Although the atmosphere pre-match was relaxed, as soon as the game kicked off it became wholly apparent that this would be a competitive affair. New Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri spoke pre-match about how he was looking for a big test for his team—who are two weeks away from the start of their Serie A season—and the A-League players assembled looked happy to oblige.
Del Piero drifted in off the left-hand side in his patented style to cause problems early on, but there were plenty of other players that impressed too. Albert Riera sat deepest in midfield, snuffing out danger and getting play going for the All Stars, while Thomas Broich looked menacing as the home side began at a ferocious pace.
The All Stars were duly rewarded when they took the lead in the ninth minute. They carved their illustrious opponents open with some slick passing, feeding the ball to Marcelo Carrusca on the edge of the box. He superbly avoided side-stepped Angelo Ogbonna and finished neatly past Gianluigi Buffon.
Eventually, Juventus managed to fashion a foothold in the game, with the irrepressible Andrea Pirlo eventually finding time and space to manage the game in his patented style. But aside from Carlos Tevez’s sizzling first-time 25-yard strike that struck the base of the post, the Italian champions were unable to prize open the stringent All Stars defense.
The score remained 1-0 at the break, but Juve’s play harbored much more intent as the second half began. And it didn’t take them long to restore parity. Pirlo swept a wonderful pass out wide into the path of new boy Patrice Evra, who whipped in a devilish cross. Fernando Llorente met the ball six yards with a powerful header and the ball was past Eugene Galekovic in a flash.
Del Piero was substituted midway through the second half to rapturous applause from the ANZ Stadium. And as he departed, Juventus looked to be tightening their grip on the game. But the All Stars had another flourish left in them. Just seconds after coming off the bench, Tomi Juric put the All Stars in front after a wonderful strike from the edge of the box.
Juventus looked down and out, but there was to be yet another twist in this frenetic game. Paul Pogba gave the Aussie crowd a glimpse of his stunning potential with a brilliant volley from the edge of the penalty area to restore parity and suddenly only one team looked as though they were going to snatch victory.
And just when the All Stars looked as though they’d earned a well deserved draw, it was snatched from them at the death. The ball ricocheted around the penalty area with the clock ticking down, eventually finding its way to Simeone Pepe 18 yards out. After steadying himself, the Italian rattled a swerving strike into the bottom corner to give Juventus a hard earned win.
The ANZ crowd will have gone home with bittersweet emotions. Delighted, of course, to have witnessed such a fine game with an exceptionally dramatic finish. But saddened too, knowing that their league is set to lose a player with a status and gravitas like Del Piero.
But just as the Italian bids “ciao” to the Australian game after two prosperous years, exciting times lie ahead for football Down Under. Another legendary figure in the game will join the A-League on loan in David Villa, and with a supporter base that’s not only increasingly knowledgeable but swelling, great times surely lie ahead for soccer in Australia.
Anyway, given the manner in which the Sydney public have immersed themselves in the Juventus culture and relished the chance of having some top class opposition on Australian soil, you suspect there’ll be plenty of quality sides from across Europe ready to pit their skills against the A-League’s finest next time pre-season rolls around.