It’s the one question that local reporters have been dying to ask Jermain Defoe ever since Toronto FC sold the English forward to Premier League team Sunderland in January in a deal that saw Jozy Altidore come to the Reds in return.
What happened? Why didn’t it work out here? Why did Defoe, who TFC heralded as a “Bloody Big Deal” at the time of his signing, leave and return to England after only season?
Defoe, 32, is back in town this week for the first time since he parted ways with the MLS club. Sunderland is scheduled to play TFC in a friendly at BMO Field on Wednesday night, and Defoe is expected to feature for the Black Cats.
Sunderland practised in Toronto on Tuesday afternoon, and Defoe was the centre of attention. The question was put to him directly: Why did you leave TFC?
According to multiple sources, homesickness, an inability to adapt to life in Canada, and MLS not living up to his expectations are believed to be the reasons. He still refuses to admit this, though.
Defoe scored 11 goals in 19 matches in an injury-plagued 2014 MLS season. He maintains that his persistent injury problems while in Toronto paved the way for his return to England
“To be honest, the first month or so, the first 10 or 11 games, it was good. It was quite simple—I got an injury. At the time I didn’t know what the problem was. I started missing games (because) I was going back and forth to London to find out what the problem was. The manager at the time, Ryan (Nelsen), was really helpful because he had a similar problem to me,” Defoe said.
“I was quite frustrated because I came (to TFC) from Tottenham—I didn’t have a rest and I came straight here. But I wanted to play. It was a difficult time for me (with the injuries). For me, when I look back on it, it was so unfortunate that I got an injury.
“At the same time, the time I was here I enjoyed it. Lots of good people, enjoyed the football, but it was just unfortunate with the injury. I moved on and that’s that.”
He also admitted to feeling turned on, especially by beat reporters who were quite critical of him, who were suspicious of the legitimacy of his injuries, and who questioned why he flew back to England to get medical treatment instead of staying in Toronto.
“I was at Tottenham for 10 years. It was my decision to come here. I didn’t have to. I wanted to come here and people like Tim Leiweke, Larry Tanenbaum and Tim Bezbatchenko (were) great people who got me here and I appreciate that,” Defoe said.
“But the thing that disappointed me was that there was stuff being written about me at the time. There were some things I didn’t really understand because I was getting criticized for missing games. I can stand here now and tell you the reason why I missed games was because the abductor muscle ripped off the bone and I was playing with a hernia for three months.
“When I finally got the operation I couldn’t come back… Sunderland came in I decided to change clubs.”
Despite the tough treatment by the media, Defoe has fond memories of his tenure with TFC, calling Canada a “fabulous country” and expressing his appreciation for the team’s “good fans.”
And how does it feel to be back?
“A bit weird. I suppose when you leave a club and you move to a different club you don’t expect to come back. When I was told I was coming back here I was looking forward to it because I still got a lot of friends here, a lot of the staff I still speak to on a day-to-day basis. It was nice to come back,” Defoe said.
The Sunderland star also believes MLS has a bright future ahead of itself as it continues to land more and more star players from abroad.
“Obviously with the likes of Frank Lampard, Steve Gerrad, Kaka and many more coming, the league will improve, and it’s going to be one of the best leagues in the world,” Defoe opined.
As for TFC, coach Greg Vanney insists that the MLS club bears no ill-feelings towards Defoe over his brief time here, or how things worked out.
“Bygones be bygones,” Vanney said.
“You have to put that stuff behind you. Everybody moves on and we wish him well. You hope his experience coming back (to Toronto) is a good one, but we like our team now and we like the direction we’re headed.”