Small but mighty
Small but mighty
Sebastian Giovinco took a risk in leaving Europe to play soccer in North America. But the “Atomic Ant” is now enjoying a low-key stardom in his new home as he tries to lift Toronto FC to its first MLS Cup.

The first fell flat on his face. The second just turned, bewildered, as wind ripped past him. Sebastian Giovinco took a few more strides toward the New York Red Bulls goal. Two more defenders collapsed as he cut through them just beyond the box. He faked a shot with his right, pulled the ball to his left and vanished. One of the men kicked feebly at the air where the ball had been, while the other nearly slammed into him. Two steps beyond them, Giovinco pivoted to the net and, with his left foot, fired a bullet past the diving goalkeeper. It was nine seconds of complete dominance in the 78th minute, in the most important game in Toronto FC history. Reds fans at Toronto’s BMO Field erupted with a fury that suggested their star had ended a century of ineptitude, rather than just shy of a decade. Giovinco, who had arrived in Toronto mere hours earlier after playing an international match in Italy the night before, had just scored the goal that would secure TFC’s first berth in the Major League Soccer playoffs.

It was Oct. 14, 2015. Just down the road at Rogers Centre, the Toronto Blue Jays were playing game five of the ALDS against the Texas Rangers. While TFC fans revelled in the glory of Giovinco’s goal, a roar echoed across the city as Jose Bautista hit a home run in the midst of one of the most chaotic innings in baseball history—and flipped his bat into international sports lore.

One of these moments became iconic in Toronto sports. But the other, more beautiful, more outstanding act, is just a high mark for a fledgling franchise that’s prone to losing. Everyone knows about the bat flip. Only TFC fans will wax poetic about the “Atomic Ant’s” magical goal.

Over lunch at Dimmi Trattoria, an Italian restaurant in Toronto’s swanky Yorkville neighbourhood, Giovinco shakes his head in feigned indignation at the mention of Bautista’s bat flip. “No perfect time!” he says in English—and then, through a translator: “He stole my glory.”

In just two seasons with TFC, Giovinco has generated a great deal of glory. His wily playmaking and lethal finishing earned him MLS Golden Boot honours as the league’s leading scorer in his first season. He was also named the league’s MVP for his outsized play. Already, Giovinco’s name appears in debates about the greatest players to ever take the field in MLS. And at 29 years old, he is still in his prime—still getting better—and has three seasons remaining on his contract with TFC following this year.

Before an injury kept him on the sidelines for more than a month, Giovinco was on track for another MVP-calibre season. The Reds sputtered without him, slipping out of contention to win the Eastern Conference. Finishing third, they earned a one-game elimination playoff against the Philadelphia Union—the first home playoff match in TFC history.

Consider it the equivalent to baseball’s wild card game. It’s set to be a thrilling playoff. And yet Giovinco and TFC are an afterthought for many Toronto sports fans, relegated in the media to Green Party status behind Bautista and the Jays, Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs, and DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors.

But the most talented athlete in Toronto doesn’t seem bothered by the lack of attention he and his team have garnered in the shadow of the city’s sporting giants. “Do you recognize him?” a manager at Dimmi Trattoria asks as he introduces a waitress to Giovinco. She searches an internal database of faces you should know. No hits. “This is a famous soccer player,” the manager prods. “Oh, really,” she says—sounding genuinely delighted—and apologizes: “I don’t really watch soccer.”

Giovinco laughs. He doesn’t mind. He chats briefly with her in Italian and orders a sparkling water. He prefers it this way. It’s a muted fame; politely Canadian.

He wears faded blue jean shorts and a grey T-shirt that showcases full sleeves of art tattooed on both arms. He has short, neatly cropped hair and a boyish face. And as his nickname suggests, he is small—just five-foot-four. In this way, he doesn’t fit the prototype of a professional athlete. He doesn’t turn heads on the street with his sheer size and physicality. In fact, on most days, he walks along the sidewalk near his condo in Yorkville and no one recognizes him at all. There are the odd fans, of course. He’s happy to oblige them with a photo or an autograph. But mostly, he’s content with the quiet nature of his celebrity away from BMO Field. He pulls on a red jersey and he’s a superhero. He takes it off and he’s just Seba.

No. 10 with a bullet
TFC captain Michael Bradley believes Giovinco has all the skills of a true star player. “Seba has special qualities.”

It’s much different back home, where the constant attention can be overwhelming. He grew up in a small town outside of Turin in northern Italy. Neither of his parents played soccer, but his dad was an A.C. Milan fan, so Sebastian was, too. In the early 1990s, he admired the famed trio of Milan greats, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. But his allegiance to Milan dissipated when he joined the Juventus youth team, based in Turin, when he was nine years old. He spent the next decade developing into one of the team’s most anticipated prospects. After a couple of seasons with the club, he continued to improve as a dynamic goal-scorer and playmaker while on loan to Parma for two seasons. He returned to Turin with Juventus in 2012.

The next three years were up and down for Giovinco. He made 130 appearances for Juventus, scoring 20 goals with 23 assists. He was often criticized for playmaking more than scoring, and had fallen out of favour with Juventus manager Max Allegri, who had diminished his time on the field. With his contract expiring at the end of the Serie A season in 2015, Giovinco was prepared to sign another long-term deal with the club, but talks fizzled.

Then, in early 2015, Toronto FC—in a bid to turn around years of abysmal failure—offered him a five-year contract reported to be worth more than $7 million a season. It was a much higher offer than he could expect to receive at home, or anywhere else in the world. The franchise was in desperate need of a bold move, especially after the signing of English striker Jermain Defoe, heralded in an aggressive marketing campaign as a “bloody big deal,” fell flat after one injury-riddled season.

Less than two days after showing initial interest, Toronto FC GM Tim Bezbatchenko—fresh off losing Defoe—flew to Turin to meet with Giovinco. They met for an hour over lunch; Giovinco says they didn’t discuss money. He was impressed by the vision of the club, outlined on an iPad he was given. He was won over when they offered him the No. 10, the most prestigious jersey number in soccer, which he’d long coveted with Juventus but never received.

But Giovinco had reason to be apprehensive. At 27 years old, he was in his prime. Stars like Thierry Henry and David Beckham had made the move across the pond, but they were in their 30s, on the back end of already successful careers. In European soccer, MLS is seen by many as a backwater minor league, but also as one with money to spend. In the global soccer hierarchy, it’s looked at as a way to cash in at the end of a successful career. For Giovinco, a move to Toronto would be a step down from elite soccer. It would likely affect the perception of him on the international stage. Fear is something he’s always had an interest in conquering, however. Among the tattoos on his arms is a large black spider. He was terrified of arachnids, so he decided to get a tattoo that he’d have to face every day. “Now, I’m not scared,” he says.

Incognito superstar
Away from BMO Field, Giovinco often goes unrecognized in a city where sports headlines are dominated by hockey, baseball and basketball

Ultimately, it didn’t take Giovinco long to make a decision on the move to North America. He consulted his wife, Shari, who was initially unsure about moving to a new place with their two-year-old son, Jacobo. But Giovinco felt it was time for something new. “I wanted to change leagues,” he says. “And, truthfully, the first offer that came in was from Toronto.”

But while the move was a financial boon for Giovinco, it didn’t take long for it to have an impact on his status in the game back home. Despite playing some of the best soccer of his career and already having 21 caps, Giovinco was left off the Italian team for the European Championship this year, with Italian coach Antonio Conte saying there were consequences to playing in the MLS. The snub upset Giovinco, who defended the quality of MLS. He remains unapologetic about his decision to come to Canada. If he had to do it again, he says, “I would make the exact same decision.”

Giovinco’s connection with his adopted city gained significant meaning this summer when his wife gave birth to their second child, Alma. “It’s what I wanted,” he says of his daughter being born in Canada. The family has taken a liking to the city, and Giovinco embraces Toronto as a second home. Even Shari, who was initially skeptical, is now “contento.” “I didn’t expect a city this beautiful,” he says. “I like the life, the people. It has an air of positivity.”

It helps, too, that the No. 10 and his name are on the backs of the majority of jerseys in the sea of red that fills BMO Field each game. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, TFC’s other two designated players and key factors in the team’s success this season, don’t receive near the attention the “Atomic Ant” generates.

Bradley says his teammate has the kind of unique abilities that set players apart. He rhymes off a list: the ability to play in tight spaces, to play between lines, to drift, to put guys on the wrong foot—combined with perfect technique in passing, shooting and dribbling. “Those are special players,” Bradley says. “I think in those ways, Seba has special qualities.”

The biggest challenge for TFC coach Greg Vanney has been implementing a structure on the field that has his team operating as a cohesive group, while also allowing Giovinco the freedom to work outside of that structure. “Everybody has to be able to improvise within your system,” Vanney says. “But obviously he has special talent to do more things than anybody, so he’s obviously got a lot more leeway to improvise.”

With the success Giovinco has had in the league, it would be understandable to wonder if he might look to return to soccer in Europe. But Giovinco says he’s committed to seeing out his contract with TFC, unlike Defoe.

The night before he scored the most important goal in TFC history, Giovinco texted Vanney on his way to the airport. He let the coach know that he expected to play for TFC the next night. “You’re ready for 90 minutes, right?” Vanney replied, kidding. “Yep, ready for 90 mins,” Giovinco responded, not kidding at all.

He arrived in Toronto just a few hours before the game against the Red Bulls and watched anxiously through the first half before Vanney put him in and he ran through four opponents to score the winner.

So there’s no question in Vanney’s mind about Giovinco’s commitment to the team. And for the record, without question, the coach believes his player is the best to ever play in the league.

For his part, sitting in this small Italian restaurant, working through a salad before training, Giovinco has little interest in revealing his grand designs for MLS supremacy. “My objective is simple. To do better game after game, year after year,” he says. “In terms of overall, I will tell you if I accomplish it. But for now, it’s just ‘Do better every time I’m on the field.’”

It’s a safe answer. In his new world, Giovinco isn’t interested in making grand pronouncements. His play is enough of a statement. There may be no bat flips in the future, but eventually Toronto fans, beyond the TFC faithful, will rise with him.

He gets up from the table, ready to leave, and kindly thanks the waitress, a new fan. He passes the bar where the manager eagerly shakes his hand goodbye. Then Giovinco exits out into a busy street, where no one appears to recognize him at all. He smiles and, with a slight jog in his step, turns down an alley and is gone.

Photo Credits

Paul Giamou