Joe Gorman is an independent journalist and author. His first book, The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, was hailed as ‘one of the best and most important written on Australian sport’ by The Age, and long-listed for the 2017 Walkley Book Award. With the PFA, Joe will explore various issues impacting Australian football.  Joe’s latest Long Read explores the experience of Wellington Phoenix across the past 12 months through the lens of two of its players; Luke DeVere and Reno Piscopo.

Words by Joe Gorman

The way Reno Piscopo remembers it, the uncertainty began on 26 January 2020, at Bangkok Airport. By rights, he should not have had a care in the world. He’d just helped the Olyroos qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Games, scoring a stunning free-kick and earning numerous plaudits along the way. He wanted to sit back and relax before the long flight home. Instead, he began searching the airport terminal for hand sanitiser and a face mask.

“They were all sold out,” recalls Piscopo. The sea of covered faces around him seemed, at the time, to be an overreaction to a mystery virus. “We were like, what’s going on here? We just thought it was something that had been blown out of all proportion.”

Piscopo had anticipated that 2020 would be a big year, both for his own career and for Australian football. The Socceroos were set to play in the Copa America in June, and the Olyroos at the Tokyo Olympics in July. If he could play in both tournaments, a lucrative move overseas would surely come next.

Indeed, it was this possibility of career rejuvenation that prompted Piscopo to sign for Wellington Phoenix in the first place. He had spent eight years in Italy – first at Inter Milan’s youth team, then at Torino, finally at Serie C side Renate – and was ready for a new challenge. And despite representing Italy at youth level he knew, deep down, that he wanted to play for Australia.

“I needed new motivation,” he says. “I saw it as an important year for the national team. I thought if I play in the A-League, I’ll be able to get more exposure. Personally, everything was looking good and I was really happy.”

But in the weeks that followed Piscopo’s return from Thailand, the coronavirus went from being a mystery to an everyday concern. As case numbers continued to grow around the world, the New Zealand Government barred entry to foreign nationals traveling from China and Iran. On 11 March, four days before the Phoenix were set to host Melbourne Victory in Wellington, the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic. 

By the time the Phoenix had trounced Victory 3–0, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had announced that all incoming travellers would be required to undergo 14 days of quarantine upon entry into the country. Those measures – described at the time by Ardern as “the widest ranging and toughest border restrictions of any country in the world” – immediately cast doubt over whether the Phoenix would be able to finish the A-League season. 

Piscopo, like most young players, was primarily concerned about football. After all, Wellington had won four games in a row, and were sitting third on the ladder with seven games left before the finals series. “We were on a roll,” he recalls. “I think we felt unstoppable. The way we were playing football, it felt like we were going to win every game in that period.”

Yet some of Piscopo’s older teammates had bigger concerns. With borders rapidly closing, club captain Ulises Davila made the difficult decision to postpone a trip home to Mexico to be with his wife and newborn son. Meanwhile, defender Luke DeVere was frantically trying to find a solution for his heavily pregnant wife, Tygar.

The word from head office was that the A-League would continue, albeit with all games played behind closed doors in New South Wales. DeVere knew that if he flew out of New Zealand with the squad, he wouldn’t be returning anytime soon. Whatever his commitment to the Phoenix, he could not face the prospect of leaving his wife in Wellington to give birth all on her own.

“It wasn’t really ever an option for me to leave them, and for my wife to have the baby without me,” says DeVere. “So the only real options were for me to call time on the team then and there, or figure out a way to get my family back to Brisbane where we have that support network and family available to help us.” 

This is a story about two players, one at the beginning of his career, the other nearing the end. In those early days of the pandemic, Piscopo was an aspirational 21-year-old with few commitments, the security of a three-year contract at Wellington and at least a decade of football still in front of him.

DeVere, on the other hand, was 30, with a wife, a young son and another baby on the way. His one-year contract provided him no certainty of employment, and he was already at a point in his career where he was planning for life after football.

It is also a story about Wellington Phoenix, a club that has gone above and beyond to keep the A-League running during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. And it is a story about the sacrifices made by players and their partners during a scattered, uncertain 12 months plagued by border closures and “hubs” and constant match postponements.

The DeVeres needed to move fast. First, they received clearance from the doctor for Tygar to travel. Next, they booked a flight to Brisbane. Upon their arrival, Tygar and their young son, Beckett, checked into an apartment they’d hastily rented, while Luke continued on to Sydney to enter isolation with his teammates.

“At that point, given the season we were having at Wellington, my wife was comfortable enough for me go down to Sydney and finish the season,” says DeVere. “The plan was that I’d probably miss the birth, but she wanted me to make something special happen with the team.” 

DeVere joined his Phoenix teammates in isolation in Sydney’s northern beaches. Things were looking grim. Around the country there were more than 1000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with more than 400 in New South Wales alone. It seemed a matter of when, not if, the season would be postponed.

On Tuesday 22 March, Football Australia announced that the rest of the season would be suspended indefinitely. Privately, DeVere breathed a sigh of relief. His biggest concern, during those uncertain days in camp, was that he would miss the birth of his child for nothing. 

After approval was granted for DeVere to head back to Brisbane to continue his final days of isolation at home, the PFA hired a car for him to make the last chance power drive up the Pacific Highway. He arrived on Wednesday 25 March, with just hours to spare before the closure of the Queensland–New South Wales border. DeVere still can’t believe his timing. “I think it was the day after I got out of isolation that our daughter was born,” he recalls.

One year on and Wellington Phoenix are residing in Wollongong, 90 minutes south of Sydney. The players are renting private accommodation in town. Some, like Piscopo, are sharing an apartment with teammates. Others, like DeVere, have their families with them. All things considered, it is a pretty good situation.

The club has done its best to create a temporary home away from home, adopting the red of local side Wollongong Wolves for its Round 11 clash against Perth Glory. Club captain Ulises Davila has his own Mexican fan club, while Israeli striker Tomer Hemed drew a crowd of Jewish fans brandishing the Star of David flag to Monday night’s match against Western Sydney Wanderers. 

Still, there is no doubt that the chaos of the past 12 months – and the loss of a proper home ground – has affected the team’s form. Before the pandemic, Wellington won eight of 11 games held in New Zealand. But at the end of last season, while they were staying in a hub in Sydney, the Phoenix won just one of its remaining six league games before bowing out in the first round of the finals series. This season, while they have been based in Wollongong, there have been only three wins in 11 games.

Behind the scenes, there have been myriad difficulties for everyone involved at the club. Some staff have been separated from their families for months. Children have needed to enrol in new schools knowing they will soon need to return to Wellington.

“That challenge in itself, for this season, has been just as big or greater than last season,” says DeVere. “It’s not just the players that this season has taken a toll on, it’s the staff as well. The players should be applauded for what they’ve done to keep things going for the club and the league, but I think the staff have contributed just as much.”

DeVere has been stuck on the sidelines, recovering from a knee injury which has kept him out since mid-February. His future is not clear, given his contract – along with those of nearly two thirds of A-League players – will expire at the end of June. With a young family to support, DeVere acknowledges that his situation is far from ideal.

“Security for players is one of the biggest concerns in our league,” he says. “It affects players mentally. That uncertainty around what’s next is, to my mind, not going to invoke the best performances. It probably has the ultimate effect of making them uncertain and unsure in their actions.”

Piscopo, who has 15 months left on his three-year contract with the Phoenix, knows he is one of the lucky few in a volatile A-League labour market. From the moment he moved to Italy as a young teenager, his life had completely revolved around football. If anything, last year’s enforced lockdown made him appreciate the game even more.

“While I was at home for those three or four months, I was like, wow, football actually is everything,” he explains. “After two months of being at home I just wanted to get up, go to training, be with the boys and be in the locker room.” 

Most of all, Piscopo is itching for an opportunity to play for Australia. The pandemic has made it incredibly difficult to plan for the future, but the Olyroos are scheduled to take part in the Tokyo Olympics later this year and he is still hopeful the tournament will provide a kick-start for his career.

“At the moment, I’m happy here. I just want to finish off the season well,” he says. “Hopefully, I get selected for the Olympics and that will give me extra exposure to get picked for the Socceroos and make that move overseas again. Where, I don’t know. That all depends on me and how I perform on the pitch.”

The Long Read by Joe Gorman: Australian football’s Indigenous engagement