Former Juventus and Italy forward Alessandro Del Piero, wearing a Sydney FC scarf and signing autographs for fans who had waited up to five hours, arrived to a raucous Sydney airport welcome Sunday to begin a two-year contract with the A-League team.
The 37-year-old Del Piero, reported to be earning $2 million a season, emerged from the Australian customs area with his family around 11:15 a.m. (0115 GMT) and was met by hundreds of chanting and cheering fans lined up behind metal security barricades.
Many were wearing his No. 10 on Juventus or Sydney FC shirts, while others waved large banners from the Serie A club that Del Piero played for over 19 seasons. His arrival was televised live by a sports network across the country.
"I look forward to starting a new career in Australia," Del Piero, the biggest signing in the history of football Down Under, said in brief comments before being taken to a downtown hotel where he planned to recover with his wife and three children from the 20-hour trip.
Sydney FC has scheduled a media conference with Del Piero on Monday and his first training session is set for Tuesday with his new club.
Del Piero, a member of Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning team and who scored a club-record 286 goals for Juventus, 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.
His decision to play in Australia is being compared with David Beckham's impact on the game in the United States when he signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Sydney chief executive Tony Pignata, who traveled to Turin nearly two weeks ago to get Del Piero's signature on the contract, said he was pleased with the response of fans — more than 2,000 club memberships have been sold since Del Piero's contract was signed.
Pignata also said 15,000 Sydney FC jerseys with Del Piero's No. 10 and name on the back had been manufactured and were selling fast, with orders from around the world.
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 be 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 first official public appearance in Sydney is expected next Sunday — Sept. 23 — when the players will be handed their jerseys for the upcoming season.
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 A-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 also includes rugby league, rugby union and Australian Rules.
The A-League's other past marquee signings, who are outside the team's salary cap, have been former Manchester United 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 2006 and won again in 2010.