Sydney: Hundreds of football fans are expected to cram Sydney's international airport terminal on Sunday morning for the much-anticipated arrival of Italian star forward Alessandro Del Piero.
The 37-year-old Del Piero signed a two-year contract on Sept. 5 worth a reported $4 million with Sydney FC and could play for his new A-League club in a preseason match as early as next weekend.
Del Piero, a member of Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning team and who scored a Juventus-record 286 goals in all competitions over 19 seasons with the Serie A club, is expected to revitalize the struggling A-League, which has suffered from declining crowds and the folding of two teams in the past two seasons.
The expected airport turnout for his scheduled 10:20 a.m. (0020 GMT) arrival Sunday has prompted a warning from Sydney chief executive Tony Pignata, who traveled to Turin 10 days ago to get Del Piero's signature on the contract.
"Regarding Alessandro Del Piero's arrival, airport security will not allow him to come through if they have safety fears," he said. "So let's be orderly and respectful please."
Pignata said he was pleased the response of fans — more than 2,000 club memberships have been sold since Del Piero's contract was signed.
Tickets for Sydney's first home match at the 45,000-seat Sydney Football Stadium on Oct. 13 have not yet gone on sale. A Sydney official said although the match was unlikely to be a sellout — "that's a big call" — it could by the team's biggest first-match crowd in its history.
Sydney coach Ian Crook said Del Piero's determination to arrive almost a week earlier than expected demonstrated his desire to make good on his promise that he was "not coming for a holiday."
"It's fantastic news that he is arriving on Sunday, and we look forward to integrating him into the Sydney FC team," Crook said. "It shows he's a pro and is keen to get started, which we knew was the case.
"As a coaching and medical group, we'll have a chat to him and a good look at him so we can plan through that process."
Del Piero's official unveiling is expected to be next week when the players will be handed their jersey for the upcoming season. Del Piero will wear his traditional No. 10.
His first game for Sydney could be against Newcastle next Saturday, a preseason match scheduled to be played in the Central Coast town of Budgewoi north of Sydney. However, if Del Piero plays, it is expected to be moved to a larger stadium at nearby Gosford.
Sydney plays its first-round match of the new A-League season at Wellington, New Zealand on Oct. 6.
Wellington Phoenix general manager David Dome told local media after Del Piero was signed that he was confident the Italian would bring thousands of extra fans to the opening match.
"He's won a World Cup, he's a big-name player," Dome said. "You don't get to see that many of these sorts of players in New Zealand so it's only right to expect that a lot of people will want to turn up to see Del Piero."
The excitement of seeing Del Piero was expected to push crowd numbers "right up there" in the 36,000-seat venue, Dome said.
Average attendance in the league dropped from a high of 14,600 in 2007-08 to as low as 8,400 in 2010-11, although it increased to 10,500 last season.
North Queensland Fury folded in 2010 and Gold Coast United in 2011, but the league will return to 10 teams with the addition of the Western Sydney Wanderers this season.
Regardless of what he does on the field on his aging legs, the deal has made Del Piero the highest paid athlete in Australia's four football codes which includes rugby league, rugby union and Australian Rules.
The A-League's other past marquee signings, meaning they are outside the team's salary cap, have been formerly England-based Trinidad and Tobago star Dwight Yorke, who also played for Sydney in 2005-06, and former Liverpool forward Robbie Fowler, who played with the now-defunct North Queensland team then Perth Glory from 2009-11.
Sydney did not qualify for the Asian Champions League this season. It was the inaugural A-League champion in 2005-2006 and won again in 2009-2010.