David Miller is a former Mayor of Toronto. He is also a life-long soccer fan, and a TFC season ticket holder since the club’s inaugural MLS season in 2007.
Sebastian Giovinco is gone. The best player we ever will see play for Toronto FC, gone in a chaotic off-season apparently driven by a combination of ownership’s desire to cut their franchise player’s pay and by Giovinco’s own pride and stubborn nature. What a loss, to the team and to Toronto. Most of all, to the supporters. And a damning indictment of modern sports, that a club and a sporting legend cannot find a way to keep that player at the club until he ends his career.
The statistics are easy to cite: 83 goals and 64 assists across all competitions in his four years in Toronto. Thirteen MLS goals from a direct free kick (David Beckham had seven). The best player on the best team in MLS history, 2017 treble winners Toronto FC. But numbers aren’t really enough to understand the impact of Sebastian Giovinco. It’s the roar.
You can feel the roar, almost before it starts. It is hard to explain unless you have been to BMO Field at one of the special moments we have had over the past four years – incredible goals, or meaningful victories. You start to feel it in your abdomen. And before you know it you are on your feet with the other 29,000 Toronto FC faithful roaring together, your body almost vibrating. These moments are indelible and shared. TFC supporters, because of the tortured history of the club, know they are rare and must be prized.
With Sebastian Giovinco, there was something else. Anticipation. For Seba, the rumble starts when he gets the ball in an attacking position, or he lines up a free kick. Because Seba is extraordinary, the incredible is anticipated. Players rarely score from direct free kicks, for example. But Seba did – regularly, and usually when it was most needed. There was a reason for the anticipation, because Seba delivered. Again and again and again.
My favourite Seba moment, in many ways, caused the first such extraordinary roar. His first season, 2015, had been a success. We were all amazed that this striker deemed not good enough for Juventus was playing for our TFC, and his close control of the ball, quick change of pace, and ability with two feet quickly endeared him to the supporters. But in 2015, Toronto FC had never made the playoffs. The team had brought in prominent English player Jermaine Defoe and U.S. national team captain Michael Bradley the year before, and Defoe hadn’t worked out. Fans were critical and doubtful. And then up stepped Seba.
On October 14, 2015 Sebastian Giovinco ran on the field against the New York Red Bulls at about the 75th minute. He’d been in Rome the day before for the Italian national team, and flew back overnight, coming straight from the airport to BMO. He insisted on playing because the club had to win to make the playoffs. Shortly after he stepped on the field he took a pass from Jonathan Osorio about ten yards into New York’s end, and turned towards the goal, dribbling by one, two, the first again, then two more New York players before unleashing a cannon of a shot that scored the goal to put Toronto in the playoffs. The roar was incredible – nine years of pent up frustration released in one moment, a moment that had it all – a player who desperately wanted Toronto to win, who was a step ahead of the other team, and who delivered exactly when it was most need. An instant legend.
There have been many more moments of course. The most significant was his pass to Jozy Altidore for the goal that won the MLS Cup in 2017. The year before, against the same opponents, Seattle, Toronto had failed to score against the brilliant (and former TFC) goalkeeper Stefan Frei and lost on penalties to a team that did not have a shot on net. By the 60th minute of the 2017 final, fans were nervous the same thing would happen, but then Altidore made a superb run across the defensive line and Seba made a brilliant pass – the kind of pass few players can see, let alone make, that fed Altidore for the goal that eventually won the MLS Cup. The supporters were out of their seats at the pass, and the roar that came with the goal was extraordinary.
Anyone who was there will remember that moment forever. Magic. Brilliant. Seba.
Sebastian Giovinco did what he was brought here to do – take Toronto FC from a laughingstock to a Champion. He made Toronto his home. On the field, he was passionate – perhaps too much at times, but committed and skilled, the best we have ever seen and the best we will ever see. I have followed soccer since before England won the World Cup, and I have never seen in person a player with his skills and ability to change a game with a goal, a touch or a pass. He is rare and quite possibly unique, yet not only have we lost him, his time ended in acrimony and finger pointing.
It represents the worst of modern sports, and we should be able to do better. Apparently, Toronto FC has decided to spend much less on its team, certainly on its star, and Seba, a proud man, did not want to take less. But is this how it really should end? Sebastian Giovinco made Toronto a champion. He is a legend here, our legend, a player who earned that status with commitment, effort and skill. In a sport that grew out of village rivalries and then teams of factory workers, community roots run deep. Soccer supporters reflect that tradition – a bond with the club and the players – that should be fostered and respected. To corporate ownership, it’s a business. They can buy a decent player for much less, so that’s what they will do. To supporters, it is something more. We form deep bonds with our exceptional athletes, which is what sells the ticket, and creates that roar. There is a tension between bottom line goals and the emotional connection of fans to their teams that owners must respect, and in this case that tension fell on the wrong side and we lost a player in which we had invested so much heart and passion for four years.
Some say that’s just sports. But for many of us, it is hard not to think that there should have been a way to keep Sebastian Giovinco at Toronto FC. There should have been a way.