Soccer newsletter: Soccer star Alessandro Del Piero pushes to master second career
Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer. Ahead we’ll discuss Mexican officials’ inadequate response to Saturday’s soccer riot in Querétaro and look at the Galaxy and LAFC, who are — barely — off to unbeaten starts in MLS.
But we start with Alessandro Del Piero, among the greatest players of his generation and one who is on the very short list for best Italian player ever. No player who started his career in Italy after World War II scored more goals across all competitions than Del Piero, who had 346 — most of them coming with flair and panache.
He won Serie A seven times and the Champions League once. His tie-breaking goal in a penalty-kick shootout lifted the Azzurri to their most recent World Cup title in 2006. He was a two-time Italian player of the year and twice the league’s most loved player.
Only Father Time could mark Del Piero, and he finally took him out of the game in 2015 at the age of 40.
But that was just the end of the first career for Del Piero. He’s seven years into his second one as a businessman and entrepreneur, one he’s attacked with the same drive and determination he showed as a player.
And he’s having nearly the same level of success.
“We used to say in sports you die twice,” Del Piero said. “You die when you finish playing because it’s really changes your life. That’s the moment when a lot of people struggle. For me, it was kind of walking [into] the new life with my eyes really, really open.”
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So three years after hanging up his boots Del Piero opened an upscale Italian restaurant and became a soccer pundit on two continents and three languages. He started a soccer academy that serves more than 180 children and a soccer team, LA10, that played in the United Premier Soccer League until COVID-19 hit. It is scheduled to return there in the fall.
He became an investor in the sunglass brand AirDP, is an academy member of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and an ambassador for the Caterina’s Club which provides 25,000 meals a week to Southern California families in need.
And this week he’ll launch a new partnership with NIO Cocktails, a Milan-based company selling boxed, ready-to-drink cocktails.
“We have a very lucky position,” Del Piero said over lunch at his restaurant, n10, on the ground floor of a nine-story office building in the shadow of the Beverly Center. “When you have money, you can choose where to put the money. These are projects that we really believe in because of the product, because of the idea. And because we figured it out we have the time and the passion to do it.
“So we are very picky in what we do.”
Why he decided to base his business empire in Southern California is part fate and part foresight. Del Piero’s last extended stay in soccer was with Sydney FC in Australia’s A-League, and on the way home to Italy he stopped with his family in Los Angeles.
“The weather is amazing. The city is great. So I said, ‘Let’s stay here for a while,’ ” Del Piero said he told his wife, Sonia. “When I said let’s stay here for a while, we put together LA10 and the restaurant business as well.”
That was the fate part. The foresight part involved his three children, who are between the ages of 12 and 14. Del Piero decided long before he finished playing that he didn’t want his children growing up in Italy, where their father arguably is more popular than the Pope.
“We want that our kids, as much as they can, to grow up without people looking for their surnames, but looking for their name,” Del Piero said. “You can have access to a lot of things. But I want for them to go through the process.”
His children now delight in correcting their famous father’s English. All three play competitive sports now, but he’s not pushing them into making that a career.
“It’s their life, it’s their dream,” he said. “I will be the happiest dad in the world if they can find a job of something that they want to do as a passion. It’s more important that they’re happy.”
Del Piero grew up in northeastern Italy’s wine country, where his father was an electrician and his mother a housekeeper. The family wasn’t poor but money was tight. He started his soccer career as a goalkeeper, in part to get more playing time, but also at the suggestion of his mother Bruna, who noticed goalies don’t sweat much and rarely get injured.
But his older brother Stefano, who had his own professional career cut short by injury, noticed Alessandro’s obvious skills and urged him to become a forward, arguably changing the direction of Italian soccer. Del Piero left home at 13 to play for the youth team at Padova, where he made his first-team debut at 16.
He played the bulk of his career in Turin with Juventus, and memories of those early years stuck with Del Piero. They influenced his decision to start a restaurant as well as the kind of food it served.
“When I was 18 years old, alone in my apartment, I wasn’t able to go out to dinner all the time,” he said. “For us, cooking at home is normal.
“It’s funny because some of the more expensive plates that you eat now are really old recipes coming from poor people. [They] cannot have all the ingredients together, so they mix up something that now is sold for $50. It’s crazy how things can change, you know?”
Just beyond the restaurant’s entrance, a replica of the World Cup trophy Del Piero won in 2006 rests in a Lucite box below a photo of Del Piero and an action figure of him in a national team jersey. On the far wall is a small painting of Del Piero, facing the other way so the large white number 10 on his shirt is the dominant part of the image.
Del Piero, who is as modest as he was great, is somewhat embarrassed by the public homage to his career, which was encouraged by his business partner Jeffrey Whalen. Still the number 10, which Del Piero also wore during his 19 seasons at Juventus, in Australia and in the final 10 games of his career in India, has become ubiquitous in his business ventures. The restaurant, n10, takes its name from the back of his uniform, as does his soccer team, LA10. Even the name of new cocktail line NIO, which is supposed to stand for “needs ice only,” is a not-so-veiled reference to Del Piero’s iconic number.
So Whalen hardly was surprised when he looked out from a nearby high rise and noticed the number on the helipad atop the building housing the restaurant. It was 10.
Whalen said the restaurant, which struggled a bit during the pandemic, draws tourists from all over and especially visitors from Italy, who come to have their picture taken with the World Cup trophy. But if the memorabilia marks a past chapter in Del Piero’s career, the academy associated with LA10 is the start of a new one.
He has imported several coaches from Europe to run the program, which includes boys and girls as young as six as well as the senior team of adult players. It’s a crowded marketplace, with the Galaxy and LAFC running top-flight development programs, as do several club teams. But Del Piero insisted he has something different to offer.
“My view of football, it’s a little different than the U.S. view of football,” he said.
In most American sports like tackle football and baseball, there are breaks in the action; he likened those to set pieces in soccer where players have time to think and regroup. Soccer is a continuous game, he said, so “you need to understand every situation, you need to be quick. Changing [your] mindset or position or play depends on many factors.”
Physical skills such as speed or strength, which separate children when they are very young, often even out as they grow, putting even more emphasis on the mental part of the game.
“The U.S. has great talents. And athleticism is very important, especially in football now,” said Del Piero, who is an enthusiastic American sports fan and an especially close follower of the NBA. “But the understanding of the game is the key to become a great team. When I stay understanding of the game, understand when I have to attack, when I have to defend. When I have to keep possession. Which way? In my defensive side or my offensive side?
“When is the moment that you feel and you see the other team is struggling? On which part? Maybe they are they struggling on the right side instead of the left side. So this is the level.”
It’s a level Del Piero mastered as a player. Now, at 47, the second act of his career is just getting started. And he’s trying to master that as well.
Addressing soccer riot in Mexico requires actions, not words
As of late Monday, government officials in Mexico continued to deny the obvious: that many people died in the riot that broke out in the second half of Saturday’s Liga MX game between Atlas and Querétaro FC in Querétaro.
Credible reports from journalists, fans and others at the scene put the death toll from Saturday’s violence at 17, with at least 26 seriously injured. Both numbers could grow.
Posts on social media featured photos of multiple bloodied and unconscious bodies — including one of a man lying naked in a pool of his own blood — as well as interviews with some victims and family members that put the lie to the claim no one had died.
Yet Ricardo Mejía, Mexico’s undersecretary of public security, speaking at a news conference Monday morning, said after “looking at evidence, the medical and civil protection reports and the fans who are in the hospitals, that doesn’t match the reality. There are, fortunately, no deaths.”
Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, completely ignoring reality, blamed the violence on past neoliberal policies and government corruption. As journalist Jon Arnold wrote, “Rather than stepping up as the most powerful person in the country and doing something, it continues to be words, not actions.”
And by ignoring reality, officials in Mexico are guaranteeing this will happen again.
There is enough evidence in the photos and videos posted on social media in the last 48 hours to identify many of those involved in the violence. They need to be arrested, prosecuted and barred from ever again attending a sporting event in Mexico.
Querétaro governor Mauricio Kuri already has pledged to seek attempted murder charges for those involved in the riot. He must be held to that promise.
But while the politicians dithered Carlos Salcido, a former Mexican national team player and Liga MX standout, offered four reforms that should be implemented immediately. He called for Querétaro FC, whose fans were said to be responsible for the attacks, to be suspended for the rest of the season and fined, with the Mexican soccer federation distributing the fines to families impacted by the violence. Salcido also called for the elimination of violent supporter groups, known as barras in Latin America, and for strict regulation of beer sales.
“Sports are for getting kids off the street,” he wrote in Spanish. “Not for bringing the streets to sports.”
Salcido’s points are spot-on. The problem isn’t the sport or even the particular teams involved — although Querétaro supporters have been guilty of violent acts before. The problem is the toxic mix of alcohol, testosterone, stupidity and allegiance to a particular group that sports fandom engenders.
Meanwhile Mikel Arriola, president of Liga MX and the man who can enact the kind of common-sense solutions Salcido suggested, offered little more than thoughts and prayers by calling the violence “unacceptable and regrettable.” He promised an investigation and threatened sanctions before saying he will ask club owners at a meeting on Tuesday to implement additional security measures and prohibit barras affiliated with certain teams from attending away matches.
Meanwhile state authorities in Querétaro, located in north-central Mexico, suspended five officials responsible for overseeing security at the stadium Saturday. Only 600 poorly trained security personnel were deployed in a stadium that seats nearly 34,000 people.
Unbeaten and unimpressive
The Galaxy and LAFC managed to get the minimum out of the maximum last weekend, dominating the opposition yet barely escaping with results — a 1-0 win for the Galaxy and a 1-1 draw for LAFC.
The Galaxy, playing in Charlotte in front of the largest crowd in MLS history, outshot the home team 21-7 and put twice as many of those tries on target. But their only score came on a perfectly placed shot from distance by Efraín Álvarez, who had come off the bench just eight minutes earlier.
“The guys grinded for 90 minutes,” coach Greg Vanney said. “We won the game because the group worked hard, defended, protected the goal and gave ourselves a chance again to win it. And we got the play that we needed to win it.”
The victory was the second in as many tries in the new season, matching the team’s longest winning streak of 2021. It also was the second consecutive clean sheet for goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, who has been called on to make just four saves this year.
But it did little to show what kind of team the Galaxy have. In their first two games the Galaxy struggled to beat New York City FC, the reigning league champion, by a goal at home then struggled to beat a winless expansion team by a goal on the road.
“It is a group that’s taken a lot of pride from these two shutouts,” Vanney said of his team. “We’re going to be a good team. And there’s a lot of pride in the locker room right now with those two shutouts.”
On the other end, however, the Galaxy remain a work in progress. Their 36 shots rank third in MLS, but they have just two goals to show for that work, with Javier “Chicharito” Hernández’s score in the final minute of regulation winning the season opener 1-0 over New York City FC.
Hernández has a league-high nine shots after two games, with five of them on goal. But only one has gone in.
“Some of this attacking stuff is going to start clicking,” Vanney promised. “[We] will continue to get sharper and sharper. We had some decent looks, which will support us not having to get a shutout every game. But if we can get 34 shutouts, I’ll be happy with that as well.”
Next up are the Seattle Sounders, who are scoreless and winless two games into the season.
LAFC, meanwhile, lost Carlos Vela to an injury and nearly lost the game Sunday, with Mamadou Fall’s goal three minutes into stoppage time salvaging a home draw with the short-handed Portland Timbers.
The game was one-sided everywhere but on the scoreboard. LAFC had the ball nearly 70% of the time, outshot Portland 25-10 and had 12 corners to one for Portland, which misfired on a third of its passes. The Timbers made it even easier by going a man down when defender Claudio Bravo got his second yellow card of the game in the 62nd minute.
Coach Steve Cherundolo was happy with the point, but he wasn’t happy with much else.
“Things we need to improve on would be creating more quality chances,” he said. “If you’re having that much possession and dominating the game so much, we need to create more clear chances.”
For forward Brian Rodríguez, the fact LAFC didn’t get discouraged or let up was a positive.
“We fought until the end. I think that was the most important thing for the team,” he said in Spanish. “The team spirit was there. I’m glad we got a point.”
However, the team also lost Vela, at least temporarily, with Cherundolo removing him at halftime for what the coach called precautionary reasons. Vela, who had a hat trick in the season opener, has missed more games than he played the last two years with a variety of injuries.
“We are still assessing exactly what it is, but it didn’t seem severe,” Cherundolo said.
LAFC travels to Fort Lauderdale this weekend to meet Inter Miami (0-1-1) in the first of two trips to Florida over the next three weeks. The team plays in Orlando on April 2.
Top 5 single-game crowds in MLS history
1. Charlotte FC vs. LA Galaxy (2022 regular season), 74,479
2. Atlanta United vs. Portland (MLS Cup 2022), 73,019
3. Atlanta United vs. LA Galaxy (2019 regular season), 72,548
4. Atlanta United vs. Seattle (2018 regular season), 72,243
5. Atlanta United vs. D.C. United (2018 regular season), 72,035
Source: Soccer America
And finally there’s this ….
Cindy Parlow Cone won re-election to her first full four-year term as U.S. Soccer president, defeating Carlos Cordeiro, the man she replaced, in the closest vote in federation history. Cone, an Olympic and World Cup champion, got 52.9% of the weighed vote to Cordeiro’s 47.1%. Cordeiro, who resigned as president two years ago amid backlash over misogynistic language used by the federation’s lawyers in defense of gender discrimination claims made by members of the women’s national team, carried the “grassroots” voting bloc made up of adult and youth councils. But Cone carried the athletes’ and pro councils … Jesse Marsch became the second U.S.-born manager in English Premier League history when he coached Leeds United in a 1-0 loss at Leicester City last Saturday. The first was Bob Bradley at Swansea City.
Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.
“The one place you should feel safe, the one place you should feel secure, that one place that should be a family environment, wasn’t.”
Former USMNT and Liga MX forward Herculez Gómez on Saturday’s bloody riot in Querétaro
Until next time...
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