It wasn’t so much the fact Sebastian Giovinco scored so many goals that endeared him to fans during his four seasons with Toronto FC.
It was more the way he scored them.
A dazzling, curling free kick that sailed over the defensive wall and majestically nestled into the far corner of the net. A powerful pile-driver from long distance. A cheeky chip shot over the onrushing goalkeeper inside the box. Taking out the opposing team’s entire defence with a slalom-like run that featured a full range of twists and turns, with a few subtle feints thrown in for good measure, before exquisitely finishing with a low drive inside the post.
These were all the hallmarks of a player who captured the hearts and minds of a devoted fan base, and made general sports fans in Canada’s largest city sit up and take notice of soccer for the first time. And now, Giovinco is gone, sold to Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal, marking the end of a remarkable and unforgettable era in the history of Toronto FC.
How did it happen? How did it get to a point where Giovinco, who as recently as the start of training camp earlier this month said he wanted to sign a new deal and end his career in Toronto, will now ply his trade in the Middle East? It shouldn’t come as a shock that it came down to money.
Giovinco earned US $7.115 million in 2018, which made him the highest-paid player in the league, and according to sources he was looking for a similar deal as he entered the fifth and final year of his contract. Having just turned 32, the Italian was thinking about his long-term financial future. He wasn’t going to play this season unless he was signed to a new contract. He was going to get paid one way or another, whether it was in Toronto or somewhere else.
It all came to a head this week during TFC’s training camp in California, with Giovinco spending several days away from the rest of the team as negotiations between the two sides took place. Management wasn’t willing to spend the kind of money Giovinco wanted on a player who was the wrong side of 30. In the end, TFC was forced to sell the Italian now instead of losing him as a free agent at the end of the season and getting nothing in return. Giovinco signed a three-year deal with Al-Halil, believed to be worth US $11.5 million per season.
Giovinco isn’t the first professional athlete to profess his lasting love and devotion for a team only to leave town for a better payday. He won’t be the last, either. But there’s something unsavoury about the way he handled the situation – his public sulking over starting training camp without a new deal – that leaves a bitter taste. That he also chose to throw TFC management under the bus in a lengthy Instagram post after the deal with Al-Hilal was announced – a message clearly penned by his agent in an attempt to spin their version of the narrative – is consistent with the petulant behaviour he displayed both on and off the field at times. He said he would have accepted to stay less to stay in Toronto, but if that were true he would have done so.
Still, none of this should overshadow what Giovinco meant to Toronto FC, and the central role he played in transforming them from league laughingstock to MLS Cup champions in just three years.
Before Giovinco’s arrival on the scene, long-suffering TFC fans endured nothing but heartache, and were forced to watch one high-profile forward after another grace BMO Field who promised so much but delivered very little. Giovinco was different. He scored lots of goals and he scored them in spectacular fashion, giving TFC supporters, hardened by a lifetime of losing, the license to dream big.
He took MLS by storm almost immediately after his transfer from Serie A side Juventus to Toronto in 2015, becoming one of the best players and most dangerous scorers in the league. He leaves Toronto with 73 goals and 57 assists in 125 MLS regular-season and playoff games over four seasons.
Giovinco was a key figure in TFC’s historic 2017 campaign when they won the Supporters’ Shield, Canadian Championship and MLS Cup, and set the record for most points (69) in a single MLS regular season. Atlanta United tied the points record last year as it hoisted the MLS Cup. But it didn’t win a treble, and most pundits will tell you that the 2017 TFC side is the greatest team in MLS history, with Giovinco the driving force behind it.
His best year in MLS was his first in 2015, when he scored 22 goals and tallied 16 assists, and he was named league MVP as he helped TFC secure its first ever playoff berth. The following year Toronto lost to the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup final.
Not content with simply dominating MLS, Giovinco also turned heads on the international stage last year when he helped TFC reach the finals of the Concacaf Champions League by leading the competition in scoring. He was also named to the tournament’s all-star team.
Giovinco was that rare breed of Designated Player in MLS, a dynamic goal-scorer and someone who had the ability to change a game in an instant with a moment of pure brilliance. He could bring TFC fans to their feet, and make them shake their heads in disbelief with his quality and the sheer magnitude of his highlight-reel goals that made him such a joy to watch. Giovinco’s sense of style and panache on the pitch, his flair for the dramatic, and a knack for making the impossible look so routine was what made him stand out the most.
He came to Canada still in the prime of his career, just short of celebrating his 28th birthday, with plenty of gas left in the tank. This wasn’t some aging veteran looking to cash in on his reputation and secure a lucrative contract as he played out the final years of his career.
The money helped, of course. He wouldn’t have come here otherwise. But it was more than that. Giovinco had plenty of motivation and something to prove after falling out of favour at Juventus. He took MLS seriously – more seriously than countryman Andre Pirlo and a host of other European stars who treated their stays in the league as though it was their retirement tours.
His commitment to the cause was never more on display then on the night of Oct. 14, 2015. That one game, more than any other, defined his genius.
Minutes after entering the second half as a substitute, Giovinco went on a fabulous solo run, working the ball between both feet as he weaved his way through a handful of New York Red Bulls defenders before firing home from inside the box, and scoring one of the best goals ever witnessed at BMO Field. This was Giovinco’s “bat flip” moment, coincidentally taking place on the same night as Jose Bautista’s iconic home run for the Blue Jays.
Giovinco’s magical goal stood up as the winner as Toronto officially clinched a playoff berth for the first time in its history. More impressive was the fact he played 30 minutes for the Italian national team in a Euro 2016 qualifier the day before in Rome. Instead of taking the day off, he immediately texted TFC coach Greg Vanney that he wanted to play, even though his plane would only arrive in Canada a few hours before kickoff. When he did land in Toronto, he didn’t go home for a quick shower and a change of clothes — he headed straight to BMO Field from the airport.
Two games on two continents in just over 24 hours. Incredibile, as they’d say in Italy.
While gob-smacked reporters hovered around him in the locker-room after the New York match, Giovinco was humble in downplaying the fatigue factor.
“This was a really important game for the team, the city, and the club and I knew it. I just tried to be available for selection,” he said through a translator.
Giovinco meant a lot to Toronto FC, but he also helped raise the international profile of Major League Soccer, and infused it with a shot of much-needed credibility.
His legacy as the greatest player in franchise history, and one of the greatest ever to compete in MLS, is firmly secured and can’t be questioned.