FOOTBALL legend Ray Baartz paid Alessandro Del Piero the ultimate compliment yesterday by declaring Sydney FC’s Italian import as good as any player to have appeared in Newcastle.
The 38-year-old Del Piero will play at Hunter Stadium for the first time on Saturday when the Jets host Sydney in a game crucial for both clubs.
The veteran’s arrival is expected to attract the biggest crowd at Turton Road this season. It also prompts debate about where he rates alongside other champions to have graced the city.
Baartz, the Novocastrian former Socceroos vice-captain, has seen most of them.
He rated Sir Bobby Charlton, the former Manchester United and England skipper who played two games for KB United in 1974, as the standout, but said Del Piero’s achievements stacked up favourably.
‘‘To my mind, he’s the best player I’ve ever seen, Bobby Charlton, on and off the park,’’ Baartz said yesterday. ‘‘He’s a player I always idolised.
‘‘To compare him and Del Piero, I think Del Piero has achieved in Italy what Bobby Charlton achieved in England.
‘‘They were both held in such high esteem that it’s fair to say they’re comparable.’’
Like Charlton, Del Piero played hundreds of games in his home country’s top domestic competition, winning premierships, the European Champions League and the World Cup.
Del Piero is the second football icon to play in Newcastle in recent times, but it would be remarkable if he proved as big a drawcard as David Beckham did two years ago when he played at Hunter Stadium for the LA Galaxy.
The Del Piero effect has nonetheless invigorated the A-League, as evidenced by the bumper crowd of 35,419 for the round-two match between Sydney and Newcastle at Allianz Stadium. That match was marketed as the marquee showdown between Del Piero and Newcastle’s Emile Heskey, and both scored goals in the Jets’ 3-2 victory.
Two months on, their teams are battling to live up to the early-season hype. Newcastle have lost their past three games and could drop out of the top six if their downward spiral continues on Saturday. Sydney are last after one win from their past seven games.
But Baartz was confident Saturday’s game would bring out the best in the NSW rivals.
‘‘I went to the game in Sydney earlier in the year, and Emile and Del Piero both rose to the occasion,’’ he said.
‘‘The whole game was such a great spectacle; the quality of the football was outstanding.
‘‘I think most players, when they’re up against quality opposition, they tend to lift ... I’m sure that’s what will happen on Saturday.
‘‘Our boys have got their backs to the wall, but I’ve got a funny feeling this game will be a real motivating force for them.
‘‘They talk about the F3 derby against the Mariners, but I’ve always felt our biggest games were against Sydney. They’re the team you like to beat.’’
As well as Charlton, Beckham, Del Piero and Heskey, a host of other luminaries have showcased their skills in Newcastle over the years.
Baartz and Col Curran were home-town heroes who became two of Australia’s all-time greats.
Lake Macquarie’s Craig Johnston remembers his handful of games for KB United as fondly as any he played during Liverpool’s glory days in the 1980s, and former England international Mick Channon enjoyed a successful loan stint with KB in 1981.
Ex-Liverpool and England striker Robbie Fowler visited Turton Road with both North Queensland and Perth Glory, as did Dwight Yorke and Harry Kewell with Sydney and Melbourne Victory respectively.
And more than 75 years ago, a prolific striker from Wallsend, Reg Date, became known as Australia’s footballing ‘‘Bradman’’, scoring hundreds of goals to earn a place in the Australian Team of the Century named in 2000.