Giovinco still has his soul, but what’s his motivation?

Sure, Bezbatchenko's money looks good now.

Sure, Bezbatchenko’s money looks good now.

So, we all know no matter how much management is talking it up, Sebastian Giovinco’s not coming to MLS and Toronto FC for the challenge, it’s all about the money.  Nothing unusual about that, players move to all sorts of teams in all sorts of leagues for the sake of a good pay cheque, which just makes sense, but it’s definitely brought out some interesting reactions at either extreme end of the career vs paycheque argument.

Taking the more idealistic side a bit too far was Goal.com’s Carlo Garganese with the conclusion that he’s basically given up on his career for the sake of the cheque, abandoning hope of reaching the heights he might otherwise have reached, or getting into the Italy team on a more regular basis for the mundanity of MLS, throwing it all away for the mad cash he’ll make with TFC.  I don’t necessarily disagree with it, though the conclusion that he ‘gave up his footballing soul’ is a bit on the melodramatic side.

Many people disagreed with that premise, or at least the wording of it, but it was SB Nation’s Kevin McCauley who swung the pendulum all the other way. He vigorously defended Giovinco’s decision to ‘get money’, and his right to do that, suggesting that chasing the paycheque is just as noble a motivation as any other, going as far as to call him a hero. Greed is good and all that. Again, fair enough, where he went too far for me was in his defiant defence of MLS as an in no way inferior destination in and of itself, with all sorts of dubious arguments thrown out to back that up.

The main reason that moving to MLS constitutes selling your soul is that it’s not in Western Europe — going to Russia for a huge paycheck is also selling your soul.

That was him presenting the straw man he was arguing against. Erm, no, it’s not about western Europe, it’s about the top world leagues, which generally just happen to be in Western Europe. That’s where you can test yourself amongst and against the best players in the world, where you can push yourself to climb the ladder to get to as high a peak as you can, where you can keep yourself very much in the mind of Italy Coach Antonio Conte. The sort of goals that people should be striving for, the stuff that would romantically be called a footballing soul.

Holding the point of view that there’s something wrong with a European in their prime going to play in MLS for lots of money requires one to hold related points of view that are equally stupid. Namely, that there’s something noble or romantic about choosing to play for the provinciale, which loosely translates to ‘lame clubs that no one outside of that local area cares about’. In the eyes of these people, playing a little bit more but ultimately still sitting on the bench a lot for a team likeFiorentina, Wolfsburg or Everton, or being a star for a team like Genoa or Torino, is a better sporting pursuit than making a metric crapton of money while playing in front of a sold-out 30,000-seat stadium. This is a bad opinion, and you should stop having it.

Erm, I like MLS, but let’s be realistic here. In what universe is any team in the league not ‘a lame club that no one outside of that local area cares about’? I have doubts about the whole sold out 30,000 stadium thing, I really don’t think that will happen, but even if it does, it’s way below the teams mentioned there. Not least because all those other teams are in much more competitive leagues, and very much at the right end of the footballing career ladder.  Would it be a step down from Juventus? Sure, but doing well there would be a very effective shop window, to keep himself in the mind of Conte, or potentially proving Juventus wrong and earning a transfer back up the ladder to a bigger club. Doing well for Toronto FC isn’t going to improve his standing with anyone. Suggesting otherwise is nothing more than ridiculous reverse Eurosnobbery, or to put it another way, a bad opinion you should stop having.

He gets to be the star of his team and he doesn’t have to pretend to care about Coppa Italia, or qualifying for the Europa League.

Right, I’m sure the MLS Cup, Voyageurs Cup, Supporters Shield etc will hold much more allure and prestige than that lousy Coppa Italia. Qualifying for the MLS playoffs, or the CCL  has always been more of a dream than the Europa League to any Calcio obsessed Italian.

Anyway, he’s taken a downward step for the sake of a lot of money. I’d agree more with Garganese’s take on it, but hey, people make decisions for all sorts of reasons, who am I to criticise? What this is more about is a different related question that will have a big effect on just how successful Giovinco might be here. What’s his motivation now?

Whatever you might think of the decision to chase the money, you can’t deny this is taking a step back career wise. Athletes are generally, necessarily hyper competitive. Since a young age he’s been with Juventus and whether with them or on loan at Empoli or Parma, breaking into the Juventus first team on a regular basis has been a very obvious goal to motivate him, as has the prospect of moving from a fringe player to a regular player with the Azurri. No matter how well he does with TFC, it won’t get him a move to a higher level than the offers he reportedly had this window, and as noted here by John Molinaro, players playing anywhere outside Serie A are less likely to get picked for Italy, never mind those that leave for MLS. He has undoubtedly jumped off the career ladder, where the next move, to bigger and better things is it’s own motivation.

If it is all about the money for Giovinco, and again if so, fair enough, good luck to him, then he’s made it already. I’m certain given the options he had and the amount of money TFC had to put up to seal the deal that this wouldn’t be your typical MLS deal with option years that the club can exercise or not at their discretion. It’s going to be years before he’s once again negotiating with Toronto. Perhaps there are performance related bonuses in the deal, but it’s going to be a while before money will be really serving as a motivation for him.

Here’s another way that signing that big long term deal might be problematic; usually, that career ladder means that even if you sign a big deal, there’s the chance of a transfer to a bigger club and a bigger deal ahead if you do well.  With this even if Giovinco plays well and attracts the attention of bigger clubs, in Italy or wherever, they’ll be looking to slot him into their existing pay scale. He’s now making more than anybody at Juventus, or any other Italian player in the world. Moving back up that ladder would mean taking less money, who’d want that?

This really is a new kind of DP for MLS. Until now, DP’s have generally been in one of 3 categories. Those at the end of their careers, looking for a last paycheque, a new adventure, the chance to play in a league where they can still dominate as they’re used to, even those guys have often struggled with fitting in to MLS. Then there’s the up and coming young players, ie Matias Laba or Gilberto who may see it as a stepping stone to bigger things, which provides all the motivation needed to stay at the top of their game. Recently, we’ve seen the start of the star in their prime, or in Landon Donovan the star who decided to stay, but it’s been American players who can very much stay in the USMNT picture and might like the idea of building the game in their own country, on top of the money of course, again all the motivation you might need.

We’ve all heard the benefits to this new type of DP signing, ie he’s still young, still relevant, a proven top level player with plenty of effective years ahead of him. But how will those things affect his desire to play? MLS has it’s challenges, the travel, the turf fields, the level of teammates and opposition, the refereeing and more. It’s probably more of a mental test than anything, I’m comfortable in saying Giovinco has the skills to be able to do very well, but he will have to keep working hard and put the effort in to do that. Jermain Defoe might well be the closest equivalent in terms of talent, age, and lack of any real connection to MLS before coming here, and look how that worked out? Really good when he was motivated, but take away the England World Cup dream, that something to strive for and he quickly realised that this wasn’t for him and it all went wrong.

Will the same happen to Giovinco? As of yet we have no way of knowing, it’s going to come down to his personality, his character. By signing this deal he’s taken away any external motivation that might have pushed him through the dark times that will inevitably come as he adjusts to his new surroundings. Hopefully racking up personal milestones against inferior players or chasing trophies will serve to keep his inner drive going.

To say he’s sold his soul is undoubtedly over the top, but to quote Pink Floyd, he’s swapped a walk on part in the war for a lead role in the cage. Let’s hope he’s fine with that once that realisation fully sets in.

Author: Duncan Fletcher

Blogging journeyman formerly of Cruel Geography and Waking the Red, also briefly with Sportsnet and every now and then with the Guardian. As a supporter of Darlington, TFC, England and Canada, football's been unfair and poking fun at Duncan for decades now, so it's only fair he does the same right back at it. Follow him on twitter @duncandfletcher

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11 Comments

  1. I wouldn’t be so gloomy as to Giovinco’s job prospects. Beckham did quite well post-MLS and at a more advanced age when his MLS contract drew to a close. His appearances were not great but his clubs were among Europe’s elite. Perhaps Giovinco is pragmatic about his or anyone’s future, performing well is only one factor in earning recognition or promotion. Those in positions of power have their own opinions about your performance and they themselves may only be in a decision-making role for only so long. It maybe better to take advantage of your knowns rather than chase uncertainties. The nice thing for Giovinco is his known and chosen path comes with excellent compensation.

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    • I guess the chance of off season loans would be something that provides motivation as I was talking about it. but that can bring it’s own problems, you mention beckham, his time at L.A went much better in later years when he wasn’t doing the loan thing every winter, his first 2 or 3 years at L.A weren’t particularly good ones and led to a bit of a fan revolt, or sometimes injury instead. another potential problem, Lampard goes on loan, then decides, huh, I like it here, what if he goes back to italy in the off season, really fits in with the team, does really well there and decides he doesn’t want to come back.

      There’s obviously been players who’ve done the loan thing without it causing problems, so it could work, but it’s a bit of an ugly awkward solution really.

      as you say there’ll be plenty of unknowns between here and the end of that 5 year term, so it’s prettyt much all guesswork at this stage.

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      • One of the saddening things about following TFC has been watching the occasional skilled player from the Euro leagues try well for a game or two only to realize that those around them have are kind of clueless about movement, etc and then not bothering doing much but picking up their pay cheque. Laurent Robert, for example. It’s not fun seeing the loss of souls. On the other hand, Giovinco’s relative youth should help with that, the motivation that playing with Bradley may give him, and if TFC can do well, it always helps to play for glory even in a lesser league (with a greater media attention and a big, ie. public marketing One of the saddening things about following TFC has been watching the occasional skilled player from the Euro leagues try well for a game or two only to realize that those around them have are kind of clueless about movement, etc and then not bothering doing much but picking up their pay cheque. Laurent Robert, for example. It’s not fun seeing the loss of souls. On the other hand, Giovinco’s relative youth should help with that, the motivation that playing with Bradley may give him, and if TFC can do well, it always helps to play for glory even in a lesser league (with a greater media attention and a big, ie. public marketing deal).

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        • Apologies for the double post… first time posting on a mobile.

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          • No apologies needed it was done for emphasis. To address your concern I now believe that the league is not a push over. I thought that Bradley in the midfield is all we would need to drive the team along. What the league showed me is one player is not going to carry the team, let alone the midfield! TFC has now gone out and picked up another key component to hold up the centre and move it forward. And like teams and leagues around the world, budgets, politics and relations constrain the quality of a team’s supporting players. At the same time the intangible quality known as “chemistry” can raise the collective and hopefully TFC can find it this year.

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            • well that’s the big thing to all this. TFC have had a history of doing good thing, bringing in good players, but then the chemistry or lack of winning mentality, call it whatever you will, just always seems to turn that gold into crap. if that continues then no matter what fancy pieces we add, it won’t work. Everything seems to be on the same page for now, so I guess we just have to hope that that page is the right one and they can keep it going. I’m relatively confident it will, but so much room for uncertainty.

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  2. Duncan, I think you have been stating this from the day Vanney was named team manager, TFC have not addressed the issues the team had with his predecessor.

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    • sorry, a bit lost here, which issues in particular are we talking about here? tactical? personality?

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      • We do not have a known, brand name manager with years of experience in that role. We have new DPs and new supporting players and we may even have a new formation, but the manager in charge will be trying to complete his first year in that role.

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        • ok.
          yeah that’s definitely a concern in many different ways all over the pitch really. looking at giovinco specifically, there’s talk of him as a secondary striker, a number 10, maybe coming in off the wing, I think he’s a player that could need a good coach to figure out where he plays best, to get the best out of him and more importantly figure out how he fits into the team properly. say for example, vanney wants him to do one thing, giovonco wants to do something else entirely, will giovonco respect vanney enough to take on what he’s telling him? will vanney have the cojones and the institutional backing to tell him what to do, or will giovonco (knowing he’s much more valuable and irreplaceable hype wise and harder to get rid of contract wise and all that) just tune vanney out? It’s been told to us ad nauseum that this is ‘Bradley’s team’, if shit goes down, will bradley be there to stand behind vanney and try keep giovonco in line? or would he recognise giovinco’s importance to the team and side with him? and what would be the dressing room repercussions of that either way? there’s plenty of ways it could go wrong.
          again, like much of what I wrote in the article, it’s a foreseeable problem, and the answer comes down to giovinco’s character and how willing he is to buy into the adventure of playing in MLS, on a dysfunctional team (hopefully less so than usual) for an inexperienced coach, rather than just getting money. I don’t know him anywhere near well enough to know the answer to that, we’ll see.

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          • Hah the secondary striker sounds like a slap in the face of Altidore. Giovinco should be a creative, possessive force in the central midfield first and foremost. And as he will be adjusting to a new league and a new world, maybe that is all that should be expected of him this year.

            As far as locker room politics, Vanney has Zavaleta, so I expect Giovinco will have Bradley (just a joke). I do expect the manager is the most expendable. I would expect Bradley would want some skillful continuity around him or he would move on himself

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