Is Sebastian Giovinco The Player Toronto FC Has Been Waiting For?
December 2, 2015 — Toronto FC striker Sebastian Giovinco has won Major League Soccer’s Landon Donovan MVP Award. The 28-year-old Italian soccer star had a season for the ages with the Reds during the 2015 campaign. He netted 22 goals to go along with his 16 assists, setting both a team and league single-season record for points on his way to the MLS Audi Golden Boot. His offensive potency also pushed TFC to its first playoff berth in the club’s nine-year history. Giovinco is the first TFC player and the first Italian player to take home the MLS MVP award.
We sit down with Toronto FC’s latest (and greatest?) acquisition, Italian soccer star Sebastian Giovinco, to talk about his historic move to MLS, adjusting to life in Toronto and the future of TFC.
Sebastian Giovinco carries himself with the poise of a man twice his size. The five-foot-four Italian footballer walks with the unmistakable swagger of an athlete fully and undoubtedly confident in his abilities, and with good reason. Sure, the guy just inked a deal with Toronto FC that made him one of the highest-paid designated players in Major League Soccer history — a few million dollars would add bounce to anyone’s step. But unlike so many top-billed imports of the past, Giovinco has quickly proven he’s the real deal. He’s young, highly skilled and already staked his claim as one of the league’s dominating offensive forces and the keystone of TFC’s attack. He could, at last, be the final piece of the puzzle that ends Toronto’s eight-year playoff drought. He could be the catalyst that changes the perception of what has historically been seen as a retirement league. He could be the future of the professional sport in Canada and the United States. And that’s just something money can’t buy.
“Yes, obviously, it has been one of the decisive factors of my decision, among other things,” he says of his much-talked-about and highly lucrative contract, which is reported to be around $7 million per season for five years. “But, in life, money is not the most important thing.”
It’s a hot and humid day late in May as Giovinco discusses his groundbreaking signing with TFC. He’s seated in a bare-bones dressing room at the Kia Training Ground wearing a simple off-white scoop neck T-shirt, grey track shorts and azure runners, residuals of the light training session he’s just finished. He fields questions with a hard, determined stare that never seems to leave his face and short, matter-of-fact answers. He’s certainly not much of a talker, soft-spoken and reserved — a trait, I’m told, that’s not so uncommon in grounded northern Italians like Giovinco.
His tattoos, it seems, say more than he does.
Busy black ink swirls around his left arm contrasting the colourful, more isolated tats dotting his right. A black and orange tarantula crawls down his right bicep just above a grinning Mexican sugar skull with soccer ball eyes. A hazard symbol with the word “DANGER” sits prominently above his wrist. On the inside of his forearm: a winking Popeye’s arm blends into Giovinco’s hand. “I like them all,” he says when asked if he has any favourites. When he sees the artwork is being inspected, he grins widely and flicks open the inside of his bicep, revealing a magnifying glass honing in on Atom Ant, the Hanna-Barbera character from where he gets his nickname: la Formica Atomica, the Atomic Ant.
When the story broke in January that Giovinco signed on the dotted line with TFC, it was like dropping a nuclear bomb on the soccer world. For years, the Turin-born football prodigy was considered one of the most skilled prospects to ever emerge from the Juventus youth system, which he joined when he was nine. During his time with Juve, Giovinco was part of rosters that would claim a Serie B title, two Supercoppe Italiane and back-to-back championships in Serie A, Italy’s top football league. In his 130 appearances for the Bianconeri, he notched 20 goals in all competitions. He also donned his country’s colours at the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, where the team took home a bronze, and at the UEFA Euro 2012, where they finished as runners-up.
But Giovinco’s frustrations over a lack of playing time with Juventus, one of Italy’s most storied clubs, were well documented, and he never seemed to establish himself as a starter. So when Toronto came knocking with the reported $35-million offer, the pint-sized striker said arrivederci to Juventus and ciao to the Great White North.
It was a landmark decision — for Giovinco, TFC and the league. Generally speaking, the only big-name Europeans who make their way across the Atlantic to MLS were those thirty-somethings with their best days behind them — think David Beckham in 2007 and, more recently, Robbie Keane, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. But that isn’t the case with Giovinco.
Just turning 28 in January, “Seba” is a star smack-dab in the prime of his career, a young, dynamic talent with plenty of gas left in the tank. It’s the hopes of both the league and fans that his signing with Toronto could be the pivotal moment the league is looking for. Recruiting a high-profile player the calibre of Giovinco, a man who could just as easily play in premier European leagues, may be the first step in attracting similar talent to MLS in the future. It’s also a chance for Giovinco to prove that he’s not just a player, but the player.
“To me, what I like is the challenge,” he says of being a key piece to the TFC puzzle. “I’m sure it’s not an easy challenge. But in life you have to set targets for yourself to see if you are able to reach them. This is an important challenge, and I take it seriously, for the sake of myself and for Toronto, and I will do my best to make the people happy.”
The response from fans to Giovinco’s signing was immediate. The Toronto Star ran a story back in March noting how TFC has seen a boost in ticket sales of 3,000 new buyers, many from Italian fans, after he joined the team. His PR team even explains that since arriving in Toronto in February, Giovinco’s been hotly pursued by media from all over and they’ve had to turn down more than a few requests for one-on-ones.
Giovinco’s impact has been felt early and often on the pitch as well, as he’s easily been the most explosive player for TFC so far this season. Wearing the coveted No. 10 jersey, his quick, shifty lateral agility has proven as difficult for defenders to pin down as a spooked rabbit, and his soft touch and sharp soccer IQ have been the linchpin of much of the team’s offence. At the time of our interview, not only are his five goals tied with American striker Jozy Altidore for the team lead (placing him in the top 10 of the league, as well), but he also leads the Reds with four assists and nine points. He’s also the most active shot-wise, more than doubling the output of TFC’s next closest player, Michael Bradley. If European players ever experience difficulty adjusting to the North American style of game, Giovinco has overcome that hurdle — and quickly.
Halftime with Sebastian Giovinco
Q. How have you enjoyed being a father? Has it changed you in any way?
“Being a dad fills your life with a different type of joy and gives new meaning to your life. As a dad all I can hope for is to raise my son to be honest and have a good character in the best possible way.”
Q. How have you found the food here in Canada? Is it as good as back home?
“I think there are some good restaurants in the city. But the way you eat at home, you can’t compare it to a restaurant.”
Q. What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?
“Live in the moment, have fun and enjoy life.”
Q. What is la dolce vita for Sebastian Giovinco?
“Being happy, surrounded by family and friends, enjoying the simple things in life. Family and friends is my dolce vita.”
“Like anything else, when dealing with new things, you have to adapt,” he says about the learning curve to the North American game. “You hope for the best and try to adapt as quickly as possible. Surprisingly enough, it took me very little time to adjust to all the new things. I hope I get even better at this and I am happy about this
In the past, TFC fans have found their expectations of big-name acquisitions deflated by either injuries or uninspired play. Julian de Guzman, Torsten Frings, Mista and more recently Jermain Defoe have all hit BMO Field and produced little despite their sizable contracts. So far Giovinco has more than lived up to the hype. He makes no effort to hide his hope for what his play will mean for fans here in Toronto and back across the pond. “Quite often in Italy they speak of successful Italians,” he says. “I’m hoping that one day they will talk about me too.”
While uprooting your family to a foreign country is never an easy decision, Giovinco notes that his partner, Shari, and son, Jacopo, are adjusting nicely to Canada. They’re happy to find themselves in Toronto, even if it’s “a bit too cold,” he jests. He hasn’t had the chance yet to fully explore the city, especially because of the early chilly weather, but he’s been enjoying the culinary scene around town, and was even spotted at Villaggio Ristorante here in Vaughan.
“My idea was to make a change,” he says of the move. “It was a difficult choice because relocating your family to another part of the world is a difficult decision. But I find myself now in a beautiful city. I am very happy.” Adding: “It’s a choice that I would make again.”
After opening the season with a big win over a tough Vancouver Whitecaps squad, TFC hit a snag, losing four straight. It’s the longest losing streak of any team this season and put Toronto in the basement of the league — and fans in the frame of mind of, “Not this again.” But TFC have rallied as of late. Over the past month they’ve posted four wins, two losses and one draw in their past seven games. Yes, it takes a team to be successful, but Giovinco has elevated the game of those around him, proving to be a major factor in the team’s upswing.
The Saturday after we met at the Kia Training Ground, Giovinco was absolutely on fire against San Jose. He factored into all three TFC goals and assisted on two, bringing his total assists to six and helping defenceman Justin Morrow and forward Luke Moore notch their first finishes of the season. A crossbar and a post were the only two things standing in between Giovinco and the back of the net.
With the win over San Jose, TFC has managed to go undefeated in their past four, with three Ws and a draw against New England. Giovinco feels the team is more focused and on the right track for making a playoff run, which, if they make it, would be the first for TFC since it was founded during the 2007 MLS expansion. “Little by little we’ll move forward,” he says, grinning and pumping his arms like a train chugging along a track.
It seems that can now be said about TFC without exaggeration. And with Giovinco leading the way, maybe fans, like their new star, can finally walk a little taller too.
Wardrobe Provided By Per Lui
Interview Translation By Stephen Tallevi