SYDNEY - Italian superstar Alessandro Del Piero has vouched for the A-League's toughness, saying the standard is "strong" on the eve of the Australian competition's ninth season kickoff on Friday.
The Juventus legend, preparing for his second campaign after scoring 14 goals in 24 appearances with Sydney FC in the A-League last season, is the highest-profile player in the 10-team league, which has attracted players from 27 countries.
While a further 11 overseas players have been recruited by clubs for this new season, Del Piero, 38, has warned them not to devalue the A-League based on his experiences last season.
"It's tough here. The football is strong and difficult. It's wrong if someone thinks they can come here and say, 'I played in Europe so I can go to Australia and it is very easy'," Del Piero said ahead of Sydney's opening game with Newcastle Jets on Friday.
"That is not true. The teams are organised, and there are some very good players."
The Sky Blues averaged home crowds of almost 19,000 last season and coach Frank Farina said the crowd-pulling Italian could take plenty of credit for that.
"Without exaggerating I think Alessandro had a lot to do with that," Farina said. "Both the marketing, the exposure, the crowds. Everywhere we went crowds increased dramatically for our visits. And he was a key factor."
Once again Del Piero headlines the A-League along with former England striker Emile Heskey (Newcastle) and Japanese international Shinji Ono (Western Sydney).
Football Federation Australia chief executive David Gallop said the return of the three marquee stars was a vote of confidence in the credibility of the A-League.
"They signed up again for a second season and that was a vote of confidence in the A-League that is immeasurable in terms of underlying where football is at in this country - the increase in the technical standards, the intensity of our competition," Gallop said.
Melbourne Victory have recruited experienced Chilean international defender Pablo Contreras, while Adelaide United's new Spanish coach Josep Gombau has been accompanied by compatriots, holding midfielder Isaias Sanchez and winger Sergio Cirio.
Melbourne Heart have been active bringing in Maltese international midfielder Michael Mifsud and Dutch defender Rob Wielaert, while Dutch midfielder Orlando Engelaar broke his leg shortly after signing with Heart and Italian Andrea Migliorini was drafted in as short-term cover.
The Heart have also lured ageing Socceroo international Harry Kewell back to Australia a year after his season stint with cross-city rivals Melbourne Victory.
Central Coast Mariners, coached by Graham Arnold, are the defending champions and open their season against Ono's Western Sydney Wanderers on Saturday, who lost 2-0 to the Mariners in last season's grand final.
The Mariners are in transition after losing three of their brightest young talents to overseas clubs - midfielder Oliver Bozanic, forward Bernie Ibini and goalkeeper Mathew Ryan - while veteran striker and last season's Golden Boot winner Daniel McBreen is on loan to China's Shanghai Dongya until the end of this month.
The Wanderers, following their spectacular debut season when they finished on top of the final standings, have strengthened their defence with young Socceroo defender Matthew Spiranovic arriving from Al-Arabi in Qatar.
Sydney FC have added squad depth with the return of playmaker Nick Carle from a loan spell in the UAE and signed defender Nikola Petkovic from Red Star Belgrade, while Perth Glory have Brazilian midfielder Sidnei Sciola in their ranks.