“I’m playing better than I was in Europe,” said Sebastian Giovinco in a nonchalant manner back in 2015 when asked whether he had any regrets about moving to Major League Soccer with Toronto FC, leaving behind his beloved Italy to forge a career in a league oft-maligned for its perception as a graveyard for fading European and South American talent.
For Giovinco, a man who was once the darling of serial Serie A champions Juventus, his career hasn’t exactly panned out as expected, but that never seems to have bothered him.
Plying his trade now at the age of 32 in the incongruous surroundings of the Saudi Professional League for Al-Hilal, anyone who watches Giovinco play without prior knowledge of the forward would be mistaken for thinking this is a supreme footballing talent, the likes of which is rare at best, come to wind down his career and milk a fat paycheque in the cash-rich nation.
Instead, it’s quite the opposite. A curious case, if you would, of a footballer who could – and probably should – have made a sizeable impact on the world of football.
When Giovinco stepped up to the dead ball, 20 yards from the Lecce goal on a frigid December evening in 2008, he carried with him the mantle of expectation placed upon his diminutive shoulders by an entire football club. Curling home a sumptuous free-kick that would break the stalemate to a raucous reception, he sprinted for the stands, mobbed by adoring teammates. This was a boy, barely out of his teens, who had been the darling-in-waiting of Italy’s most successful club for almost his entire life.
Since the age of nine, despite growing up in a family of devout Milan fans, Giovinco had been a disciple of the Bianconeri at heart. His rise through the youth ranks had been stratospheric. Bestowed with every youth championship possible – from the Campionato Nazionale Primavera to the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Primavera, as well as being named player of the tournament in the 2006 edition of the Viareggio – his transition into senior football was expected to be flawless.
It was a time of considerable difficulty for Juventus. Having been stripped of their two previous Scudetti thanks to their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal, they were plying their trade in the ignominious surroundings of Serie B without many of their star players, who had abandoned a sinking ship in the fashion of true mercenaries. Gone were Ibrahimović, Thuram, Cannavaro, Zambrotta and Vieira, the cornerstones of a Juventus side that had won four out of the previous five Scudetti.
Yet, though stalwarts Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluigi Buffon and Pavel Nedvěd remained in Turin to lead the resurrection, there was one player who was eliciting a glimmer of excitement in an otherwise dreary landscape. The young Giovinco, looking for all the world like a boy amongst men with his slight stature and height of five foot five inches, was granted his first-team debut in trying circumstances.
The Old Lady were expected to bounce back to the top flight, but that didn’t stop attendances plummeting at the Delle Alpi amidst widespread disinterest and discontent. While drawing 1-1 with Bologna on 12 May, Deschamps threw on the inexperienced Giovinco to provide a spark of impetus. A delicious cross for a David Trezeguet goal and the 18,000 or so fans who had deigned to turn up believed they had seen the future.
It was no secret that Giovinco coveted the number 10 shirt that had been worn for more than a decade by his hero, Del Piero, but he would go via a circuitous route in his quest to obtain it. With Juventus back in Serie A, Giovinco was loaned to Empoli in order to find some game time – and find it he did. Christened Formica Aantomica (Atomic Ant) in no small part to his diminutive stature, he played 35 times for Empoli and, despite registering six goals and four assists in the league, he couldn’t stop them slipping through the relegation trapdoor to Serie B.
However, Juve had seen enough to warrant recalling their starlet for the new season, granting him the number 17 shirt. While at Empoli, Giovinco had impressed in his favoured role behind the main striker, the trequartista or fantasista role made famous by the likes of Del Piero, Roberto Baggio and Francesco Totti, but back in the black and white of the Old Lady, Giovinco was shunted around the pitch, cropping up sporadically wherever manager Claudio Ranieri needed him. For the moment, he was a spare part as opposed to a permanent fixture, and his debut goal against Lecce could do nothing to change that.
For two seasons, Giovinco’s progress stalled as Juventus began their ascent back to the summit of calcio. Deemed too inexperienced to bear the mantle of Juventus’ primary playmaker, Giovinco was often used as an impact sub, his ability to dribble in tight spaces and at high speeds deemed more useful late on against tiring legs.
Yet, despite accusations later in his career of shirking application and ambition, the youngster was determined to force himself into contention, and if he couldn’t do so from the bench, then he certainly could elsewhere in the league. Consequently, another loan was organised; this time, not to relegation fodder desperate for the scraps off the top teams’ plates, but to Parma, a club with a storied history seeking to re-establish themselves at the right end of the Serie A standings.
It was here the Giovinco that Juventus fans had been waiting for emerged. During his two-year spell amidst the rural pastures of Emilia-Romagna, Giovinco played 70 times for, scoring 23 goals and providing 22 assists. Deployed in his favoured number 10 role, initially behind ageing Parma legend Hernán Crespo, a slow start, which yielded a solitary goal in his first ten games, soon gave way to a run of inspired mid-season form.
Giovinco duly reminded his employers why they should be keeping a keen eye on his development as he grabbed a brace in a 4-1 Parma victory over Juventus in Turin. The first was an instinctive finish, as he followed up a Massimo Gobbi header to blast a left-footed half-volley past Gianluigi Buffon; the second, a smart finish after plucking a deflected cross out of the sky. On both occasions, a forlorn Giovinco, who had looked for the most part like playing against Juventus was causing him physical anguish, refused to celebrate.
If his first season with Parma was solid, then his second season was excellent. I Crociati exercised their right to purchase half of Giovinco’s rights for £3m and he duly rewarded their faith in him by firing Parma to an eighth-place finish, their highest in the top flight since the 2005/06 season.
Giovinco reminded Juventus and Antonio Conte why it was unwise to have allowed Parma to exercise their first option with a goal from the penalty spot against his former employers during the second round of fixtures. Following a lightning run that caused havoc in the Juventus box, the result was Giovinco being hauled to the ground out of sheer desperation.
This electric acceleration, tight ball control and quick decision-making was to become his hallmark. Using the hulking Sergio Floccari as a foil, Giovinco’s movement would cause havoc for opposing defenders. Whether he was carrying the ball from deep to create chances for his teammates or shoulder the goalscoring burden alone, he was flourishing.
After a successful season, Giovinco received the news he had been waiting for: a return to the Bianconeri at last. After regaining the Scudetto, Conte recalled the 24-year-old Giovinco from his profitable spell at Parma with a view to integrating him into his developing Juventus side.
Yet, the first thunderheads of discontent began to gather on the horizon the moment he returned. Desiring the number 10 shirt vacated by Del Piero, Giovinco was granted the number 12 instead. The storm was kept at bay for a season, however, as Juventus clinched a second consecutive Scudetto and Giovinco was a mainstay in the starting line-up, contributing seven goals and as many assists en route to glory.
However, the following season, with Juventus seeking a third Scudetti, saw Giovinco register just 12 minutes on the pitch during the first five games of the season. It was to be an omen for things to come as Conte relegated him from the starting line-up for the majority of the campaign. Again used as an impact sub, Giovinco’s ambition began to wane and his performances grew lacklustre. He finished the season as he started, with only a handful of minutes from the bench.
Therefore, when a new campaign dawned and the juggernaut that was Juventus showed no signs of slowing down, an increasingly despondent Giovinco seldom found himself on the pitch. A scoreless run of seven games in Serie A culminated in him seeking a move away from Turin in January. The Juventus dream appeared to be over; 15 years that yielded 132 games and only 20 goals. It was mooted that the former prodigy, still only 27, would seek his fortune elsewhere in Europe. There were plenty of suitors, not least in Italy.
But it came as something of a surprise when Juventus announced that MLS side Toronto FC had secured the signing of Giovinco for €7m, with the transfer scheduled for the end of the 2014/15 season in Italy. At 27, and with time on his side, it was seen by many as the footballing equivalent of raising the white flag. Giovinco’s voyage up until now had been rocky and the squalls that blew in with increasing ferocity during his final, tumultuous year-and-a-half at Juventus had nearly sundered him. Even more surprising was Giovinco’s decision to cut short his stay at Juventus, agreeing to a contract termination in order to traverse the Atlantic in January 2015.
Canada welcomed him with open arms, and he swept all before him in a mesmerising demonstration of why Juventus had so flagrantly misused his talents. In 33 games for Toronto in 2015, he barely missed a beat. What followed was a gluttony of contributions – 22 goals and 13 assists to be precise – which left MLS viewers purring and the rest of the world wondering. This wasn’t just a case of an ageing star brushing aside questionable defending: this was a man who made a mockery out of every side he faced.
It was a curious move, one which raised the issue that Giovinco was somehow throwing away his ability in a league that was clearly not stimulating him. During a four-year stay in Toronto, he plundered 83 goals and 51 assists in 142 games. It is no surprise, then, that Giovinco holds no fewer than 15 separate MLS records, including the first player to lead the goalscoring and assist charts in the same season, the leading scorer of free-kicks, and the fastest player to reach a combined 100 goals and assists in MLS history.
Here was a man, eschewed by his boyhood club, who had swept all before him at youth level and then burgeoned into a dangerous if frustrating footballer in Italy, laying waste to an entire league practically on his own. What was seen by some as a blatant step down, an acknowledgement by the player himself that he was not good enough for the elite, was seen as an ingenious reignition of an ailing career by others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Giovinco was the only footballer from MLS to be named in The Guardian’s and L’Équipe’s best 100 players lists in 2015.
Yet, despite the accolades falling at his feet, Conte, by now the Italy manager, omitted him from the Azzurri’s Euro 2016 squad, remarking: “When you make a certain choice and go to play in certain leagues, you do so taking it into account that they could pay the consequences from a footballing viewpoint.”
Similarly, two years later, despite his continued good form for Toronto, Giovinco was completely omitted from Italy’s World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign. Of his omission, Gian Piero Ventura explained,:“I have done everything to help him but the reality is that he plays in a league that doesn’t count for much, and the number of goals he scores is less important because with the quality he has got, he is bound to make a difference in that league.”
Subsequently, Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years and Sebastian Giovinco’s last cap for his country came in 2015.
Registering high on many European club’s radars throughout his stay in MLS, Giovinco was touted to make a return to his continent of provenance having demonstrated his ability as a footballer had not waned in his years across the Atlantic. While his acceleration had begun to fade, his clever footwork, eye for a pass and his uncanny accuracy from dead-ball situations remained as wondrous as ever.
Yet, in a world where work-shy number 10s are shunned in favour of high-pressing, athletic forwards, Giovinco’s place in top-level football bore as much uncertainty as when he was in his prime. Despite this, few could foresee his next move.
With his time in Canada at an end following failed negotiations over a new contract, Giovinco was free to move elsewhere sans a hefty transfer fee. An attractive prospect, perhaps, for a European team looking to add some creativity. Instead, as he did when he left Juventus in 2015, Giovinco subverted expectations once more and hopped back across the Atlantic and indeed right over Europe, too, landing in Saudi Arabia, where he now plays for Al-Hilal.
It’s a shame, some might consider, that a footballer as talented as Giovinco now plies his trade in a league ranked 28th in the world. On one hand, it merely consolidates the view that Sebastian Giovinco has always been a footballer shy of putting in the work required to match his unquestionable talent. On the other, you could argue that the Atomica Formica is one of the purest mavericks, one who refuses to be bound by convention. Either way, it doesn’t seem to bother a man who has always played football his own way.
By Josh Butler @Joshisbutler90