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For an Italian footballer with a record of international honours reaching as far back as the Azzurri U16 team, passing through all of the age groups and representing his country at the Olympics, European U21 Championships and the Confederations Cup with the senior team, a glowing future in Serie A surely awaits. Sometimes, however, it doesn’t work out like that. On 30 January this year, just a few days after his 32nd birthday, Sebastian Giovinco left the club where he had been plying his trade for the last three years, for a new challenge.
This, however, did not involve a move from one Serie A club to another, as would surely have been expected for a player with 23 Azzurri caps to his name. The transfer involved Giovinco moving from Canadian club Toronto, to join Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia. A player signed to Juventus, and with a pedigree of international representation for his country was lost to Serie A at the height of his powers in 2015. How did such a talent slip through the Calcio net to end up in the apparent backwaters of the MLS and a Canadian club?
Sebastian Giovinco was taken under the wing of Turin’s Old Lady in 2006, with Juve in Serie B following another scandal and enforced demotion to the Calcio’s second tier. With a number of the more celebrated names deserting the old girl in her time of greatest need to find refuge with other clubs rather than drop down a division, a chance was offered to some of the younger players to force their way into the first team reckoning. Giovinco seemed to fit that pattern precisely, as success with the Primavera squad bookmarked his credentials as a player with a bright future. During the 2005-06 season, success in Primavera championship and cup competitions suggested a talent capable of playing in the first team, despite his tender years.
The following term, at 19 years of age, he was added to the first team squad, although still undertaking Primavera duties. A debut as a substitute in May 2007, in which he created a goal for David Trezeguet helped Juve to the Serie B title and, to many, Giovinco seemed destined to inherit the famous Bianconeri 10 shirt previously graced by such luminaries as Baggio and Del Piero, the latter being the incumbent at the time. A loan move to Empoli before the new term seemed an entirely reasonable move for both club and player, in order to ease him into the rarefied atmosphere of Serie A. It would certainly be a chastening experience as, despite Giovinco’s 35 league games and six goals, Empoli, struggled and were eventually relegated.
Had the period in Tuscany been beneficial? Initially, Giovinco’s return to Turin suggested that it had. The following term though, back in the embrace of La Vecchia Signora, chances to shine were few and far between, with 15 league games bringing a single goal, and hardly rave reviews. Two things were becoming increasingly clear to both club and player. Firstly, that any development would require extended game time and, secondly, that such a privilege was hardly likely to happen with Juventus.
Time, tide and Italian football wait for no man. Now 23 years old, it was time to move on from being the prodigy with potential, to be a player who delivered on the big stage. A two-season loan period with Parma offered the chance to show Calcio that the burgeoning talent had burst into flower. The early parts of the season suggested it was a chance the player would grasp. His early endeavours brought a call up to the national team and, in early 2011, a brace against his parent club in a 4-1 victory would certainly have been particularly satisfying. At the end of the term, he had played 30 times, scoring seven times. The following term he would improve on those figures, scoring 15 league goals in 36 appearances. It made him top scorer for the club, as Parma ended the season in an impressive eighth place. Sent out to prove himself, in his two terms with the club, Giovinco had played 70 times, scored 23 goals and contributed 22 assists. Surely, he was now ready to take the place in the Juve line up that fates seemed to have aligned for him.
The 2012-13 season was the stage, but even before a ball was kicked, it seemed the script was being ignored. Instead of the 10 shirt, manager Antonio Conte offered number 12. It was a portent of how things would transpire. In that term, he would play 31 Serie A games, but a seven-goal return was hardly inspiring, especially in comparative terms, given the haul he enjoyed at Parma. The writing was on the wall. Across the following two terms, appearances in the league would drop to 17 and then seven, with two goals coming in the 2013-14 season, and none in the following term.
During January 2015, with his Juventus contract running down, a deal was agreed with MLS club Toronto FC to move to Canada at the end of the season on a five-year deal although, due to mutual consent among the clubs, the move would happen in February. Reported to be worth some $7.5 million to Giovinco, it made him the league’s highest-paid player. To many, however, it seemed a strange move.
Forgetting the financial benefits for a moment, why would a player of undoubted talent, move to, what most football fans consider, a minor league populated by the world’s best players with their best days were behind them? Here was a player, supposedly in his prime, trading Serie A for the MLS. Was it frustration at failure to establish himself at Juventus, a desire to prove himself, or merely perhaps the lure of a new challenge? Whatever the case, for the next three seasons, Sebastian Giovinco would light up the city of Toronto in a way he never could in Turin.
Driving the Canadian club forwards, Giovinco quickly established himself as one of the outstanding talents in the league, breaking a series of records during his first season in North America. He won the MLS Golden Boot, the MLS Newcomer of the Year, and the MLS MVP Award, but that was just the start. The club would take the Eastern Conference Championship, the Canadian Championship and the Trillium Cup in 2016. In the following term, they retained all three of those honours and added the MLS Cup and the Supporters Shield. In the following year, Toronto would reach the final of the CONCACAF Champions League, eventually losing out on penalties to Mexican club Guadalajara. Recognising his immense contribution to the club’s success in the tournament, Giovinco would be awarded the Golden Ball as the competition’s outstanding player. Altogether, in a shade less than 150 games for the Canadian club, he would score 83 goals and create nearly as many assists.
All things come to an end though, and early in 2019, Toronto decided to sell the Italian playmaker to Al-Hilal. It was a deal that Giovinco was hardly enraptured by. Making it very clear to all concerned, and especially the Toronto fans who had taken him to their hearts, that it was not a move driven by financial ambition on his part, he stated plainly that “I would have accepted less to stay in Toronto.” The size of the transfer fee remains undisclosed. Whatever the full details, however, the deal went through and Giovinco would introduce himself to his new club in a grand manner, scoring on his debut.
It’s often questioned of highly rewarded footballers as to how they judge their success. Is it by goals scored, money in the bank or the hero-worship bestowed upon them? It seems that in the case of Sebastian Giovinco, perhaps another possibility could be mooted. A player who rarely seemed content enough to deliver on his best form in Italy, felt much more at home on the borders of Lake Ontario than in his native Turin. It may be that in this case, the old adage comes to the fore, and that home is where the heart is, and that was success aplenty.