Sebastian Giovinco and the Conundrum of the Backwater League

In August 2015, Sebastian Giovinco and Andrea Pirlo were called up to the Italian national team for their Euro 2016 qualifiers against Malta and Bulgaria the following month. They were set to become Italy’s first representatives from the MLS in North America. While Giovinco was subsequently injured and only Pirlo could play, the forward was finally granted his bow against Azerbaijan and Norway in November. Coming of the bench in both matches, he was involved in both goals as Italy defeated Norway 2-1 to seal their position at the top of their qualification group.

Despite his performances for club and country, these matches would prove to be his last for the Azzurri. Antonio Conte, then Italian manager, dropped both Giovinco and Pirlo from the final Euro 2016 squad because they made “a certain choice [to] go to play in certain leagues.” Pirlo, who turned 37 before the tournament, was an understandable omission. After a career that had spanned nearly two decades, and included multiple Champions League victories and the 2006 World Cup, it was arguably time for his retirement.

Giovinco, on the other hand, had just turned 29 in January. At an age when most footballers are hitting their peak, Brazilians and goalkeepers aside, Giovinco was plying his trade in the footballing hinterland of Canada. For a player who had been involved at every age group for Italy, and had won best player at the prestigious Toulon Tournament in 2008, the forward has only played 23 matches over 5 years for his country. At the same time, he has also scored 39 goals in 60 matches for Toronto FC over the last two seasons. There seems to be an inexplicable disconnect between club and country.

Born in Turin, Giovinco was taken in by Juventus youth system when he was nine years old. Flourishing through the ranks, he made a significant impact on the Bianconeri coaches. He was finally granted his debut towards the tail end of the 2006/07 season, after Juventus had achieved promotion from Serie B. Following successful stints at Empoli and Parma, Giovinco returned to Turin in time for the start of the 2012/13 season.

Returning to the reigning Serie A champions, Giovinco was immediately granted a first team position by then Juventus coach Conte. With 11 goals in 42 games, he helped the club retain the Serie A championship, and looked set to push on in the following season. However, the arrivals of Carlos Tevez, Fernando Llorente and Simone Zaza for 2013/14 meant that Giovinco was unable to hold down a regular spot in the team. Alvaro Morata’s arrival the following season meant that Giovinco was furthered alienated, and he realised that he would have to leave the club.

Considering his serious lack of matches in 2014/15, when he only made 11 appearances, he was unable to attract any real interest from larger clubs. In the end, he decided to make the move to Toronto FC in the winter transfer window because he felt comfortable with the Canadian side’s representatives. In fact, it has been claimed that the good relationship between Tim Bezbatchenko, Toronto’s general manager, and Andrea D’Amico, Giovinco’s agent, played an important role in making the Italian the highest paid MLS star at the time.

At the time of Giovinco’s arrival, Toronto were among the better sides in Canada, though they had struggled to make an impact in the MLS. He was brought in as a replacement for the Sunderland-bound Jermain Defoe, and he hit the ground running. Although Toronto failed to win anything in 2015, Giovinco would be named the MLS MVP, the MLS Newcomer of the Year, a MLS All-Star, and be named to the MLS Best XI. He even won the golden boot award with 23 goals, and broke the league record for most goal involvements for a season, with a total of 38 including 15 assists. He has played at a similar level in 2016, leading Toronto to the Canadian Championship.

Overall, it seems clear that Giovinco’s move to Toronto has benefitted both parties. The Canadian club have got a striker that would walk into most first teams in Europe, while the Italian has revitalised his career as the big fish in a small pond. However, the one sticking point continues to be Giovinco’s international career. While he has shown no signs of wanting to leave Toronto – in fact, he has talked up the league’s potential – it is clearly a problem. Many Europeans still see leagues in America, China and the Middle East as competitions for a final payday, after a player retires.

For the most part, these assumptions are correct. Starting from the 1970s when NASL lured out giants of the game like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best, many of these backwater leagues have tried to raise the profile of the game through big-money signings. That tactic still continues today, with the creation of the Indian Super League and the continued flow of semi-retirees, like Xavi and Pirlo, out of Europe.

However, there does seem to have been a discernible shift in recent years, particularly in China. Players like Jackson Martinez and Graziano Pelle have both cut short promising European careers in their prime to leave for Asia, and neither seem to have any regrets. Of course, there are still accusations of gold digging considering the massive sums that are promised to players, and these claims are not wrong. However, as Manchester United complete the transfer of Paul Pogba for a minimum of €110 million, it seems like a case of casting stones from a glasshouse.

All of this leads back to the conundrum of the backwater leagues. Just because some leagues have a history of purchasing footballing retirees, should all European players in those competitions be disqualified from national service? Pirlo may not have the ability to affect the outcome of high-level matches anymore, but Giovinco would have surely been able to finish a penalty better than Zaza did against Germany.


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