The Italian Job(s) – Pondering TFC’s Rumoured Italian Interests

The TFC coach rolls into town.

The TFC coach rolls into town.

“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”
– Michael Caine’s character Charlie Croker in the film “The Italian Job”
– Most TFC fans two years into the latest MLSE regime change

“That’s a spicy rumour!”… And all sorts of other hackneyed Italian stereotypes abound as more winds of change could be wafting through TFC’s front office in the near future. With current MLSE head honcho Tim Leiweke preparing to ride out of town this summer on a victorious wave of Maple Leafs malignancy, Raptors’ airballs, the shoehorning of the Argos into BMO Field and exactly zero parades, there will be a sudden vacuum of leadership at the top of your favourite local foot and ball team.

When pre-season attempts to install a president at TFC didn’t come to fruition the search seemed to be put on the back-burner. However, if some reasonably well-placed rumour-mongers are to be believed, MLSE has set its sights on Italy in an attempt to install a new leader of the eternally floundering Reds. While these rumours have been vociferously denied by many media types close to TFC, the possibility that one of AC Milan club director Umberto Gandini or former Juventus player/deputy director-general (and ex-Toronto Blizzard star) Roberto Bettega being hired is a lingering story. Impossible? As local fans witnessed with Sebastian Giovinco’s off-season signing – a preposterous Italian rumour can become a reality in TFC Land with the simple signing of a large cheque.

Playing the avvocato del diavolo, let’s presume that there is a bit of smoke to this fire. While a debate on which of Gandini or Bettega would make for a better TFC President is premature, there are a series of repercussions that would emanate from the hiring of either or a man of their ilk. If MLSE decides that what The Reds need now is a new Roman Empire (more likely an overpriced bunga bunga party) then funny things may very well happen on the way to the Coliseum… erm… BMO Field.

The current state of TFC, especially post-Ryan Nelsen, is very much the baby of GM Tim Bezbatchenko. Armed with a number of transfer windows worth of maneuvering, it is fair to say The Reds are in the mold of Bezbatchenko by now. While he has fallen short of the title “Prezbatchenko”, there is a very public perception that TBez is “the man” at the club in regards to direction.

The installation of a “glamourous” executive hiring above Bezbatchenko would immediately create questions about whether or not he could submit to the will of someone given the ultimate say over TFC’s direction. Having TBez revert back to his original role as MLS “cap wonk” and assisting a president with little experience in Major League Soccer’s peculiarities would be an ideal scenario. The potential problem will of course land at Bezbatchenko’s ego and whether or not a man currently calling majority of the shots could take a step back and work within another man’s vision.

The only “what if” in this scenario is “what if Greg Vanney somehow holds onto his job long enough to meet the new president?” Since his ill-fated ascendance to the TFC coaching throne last year, Vanney has failed to bring anything remarkable enough to the table to even buy into a long-term vision let alone give him enough rope to continue his management of one of the league’s most expensive – and unreasonably success-expectant – squads.

Whether the rumours of Vanney being on the Orlando-based verge of a sacking are true or not (very, very unlikely to be true) there simply is no way that a president that comes out of the ranks of an AC Milan, Juventus or similar will rate the club-promoted “student of the game” Vanney. As most fans of TFC will concur, this club has long required a “professor of the game” and not someone on an employment training course. This is the one area where TFC has refused to change gears (apart from possibly Preki) and the results have proven this is no place for a novice manager. It is nearly impossible to see any new president identifying Vanney as a viable candidate to continue long-term and it will be interesting to see how Bezbatchenko reacts to “his man” facing the axe. If his own hand isn’t forced earlier of course.

You can’t blame internal TFC supporter alarms for going haywire at the rumour of a new European overlord being seated in the club’s big seat. We were all here when the Aron Winter experiment landed with such promise and sadly went up in flames soon after. While a new hire would likely have more major club management experience than Winter & Co. did, the big fear – their lack of knowledge of MLS and its space oddities – will remain. This had a significant effect on Winter’s failures (along with some Game of Thrones-worthy subterfuge) and the anxiety of a frustrating re-run would permeate amongst support.

A peculiar aspect of the Italian rumours is the ownership’s apparent sudden change in targets. In the off-season MLSE made their intentions to pursue longtime Real Salt Lake executive Garth Lagerwey rather evident. The move fit in with the club’s shift towards “MLS guys” and Lagerwey would have seemingly fit in nicely into “Team CanAmerica”. Lagerwey obviously reads this site (we await proof against!) and steered a wide berth around Total Drama FC for the Frasier-filled valleys of Seattle which left TFC without an obvious back-up plan. The emergence of these Euro-centric targets is not only concerning in that they could arrive without the necessary MLS nouse but also in that the ownership may not really be quite sure what, who or how they want their leader to be.

While multi-sport ownership monoliths aren’t unique to Toronto, there are few with as much regional influence as MLSE. The Bay Street Bankers are of course notoriously “fiscally-minded” (a polite way of saying dollars > trophies) but if there is one other reality it is that they are thin on the old soccer-brains at the Board of Directors level. Tim Leiweke has an undeniable affection for MLS (even if it manifests itself in odd ways) and TFC wasn’t the Reds-headed stepchild within the corporation under his leadership. Once he departs however, the undeniably Maple Leafs-addicted Board will likely shift their sporting attention fully to the NHL and to a lesser extent the NBA and the Raptors.

If Gandini, Bettega or similar is to relocate from a place like Milan or Turin etc. they will have to be ready to sit at the kid’s table during corporate shin-digs. TFC isn’t likely to hold the sway it has under Leiweke and a European, so used to football being the be-all and end-all of the sporting landscape, will have to be prepared to not be the big formaggio locally. This isn’t too big a deal depending on the ego involved but it will be interesting to see how deep the financial well goes for TFC post-Leiweke and if the new man can navigate being a distant third in the corporate pecking order.
Imagine for a moment one of these men, reared in an environment where Calcio is King, telling the MLSE Board that the Argonauts are destroying his pitch and something needs to be done immediately. The irate hand gestures and excellent Italian swearing when it falls on deaf ears would be the best episode of “All For One” ever.

If the time comes when MLSE are ready to make an approach for one of these candidates, it is fair to ask “why would they want to come here?” Putting paycheque aside (and that’s a mighty big aside) the motivation isn’t obvious. Italian directors don’t exactly have long life-spans at the big clubs but could security be tempting enough? While not exactly on the tightrope of the major Spanish sides, Serie A directors are often at the trigger-happy whim of some very itchy owners. That being said, MLSE aren’t exactly patient – but their non-disclosure buyouts must be so delicious.

On the surface it is a little difficult to identify the reasons why one of these men would be tempted by the TFC job. Apart from some snarky European tabloid headlines, TFC are not a world-class club. They aren’t even a MLS Eastern Conference-class club. You would have to hope that MLSE does their homework in finding out the “why” part of a prospective president’s desire before hiring. Despite Serie A being at its lowest ebb in a couple of decades, this is not the type of position you want to hand to someone who isn’t in it for the long-haul.

One of the most exciting prospects floated when Aron Winter was handed the keys to paradise was creating a “club philosophy” – a playing style much in the model of Ajax that would be indoctrinated in TFC players from the U12 level up to the First Team. Sadly, this was a casualty of that regime’s demise and when so many head coaches have come and gone since, it is unlikely anything similar has been attempted again.

With these two candidates coming from clubs where similar philosophies exist you would have to imagine that this may once again be the goal. MLSE has done well to invest in quality training facilities, youth programs and most recently the formation of TFC II. If they could have the foresight to hire a bright mind and allow them the time to try to instill a club philosophy it may be worth the whole exercise after all. Creating a legacy that outlives your presidency should be the ultimate dream of any potential hire. Of course finding the right man is the key.

For good, bad or ugly Michael Bradley has been given a lot of power within the halls of BMO Field. The brash American has not only ascended (or was pre-emptively ascended – your call) to the position of club captain but also obviously has more than just the ear of the front office. This can be a good thing when attempting to attract new players or getting his charges pulling for the club as a whole. However, when things go sour it is never a good idea to have one player wielding – and inevitably expecting – to have so much sway over management. Cracks may quietly begin to form around Bradley’s influence over the dressing room and beyond – they always do when things drift into crisis mode.

But what happens if a new president arrives? Particularly, a president that has dealt with much bigger stars who could have demanded much more influence based on their pedigree but were not given that? Bradley is a big name in US Soccer of whose acolytes are currently running TFC. If someone from AC Milan or Juventus becomes the leader then Bradley falls back to where he should, amongst the ranks of players. His leadership in the dressing room and on the pitch should and would unlikely be protested, nor should it be, but it would be a surprising turn of events if he still held the sway he currently does.

For better or worse, TFC has currently been built around Michael Bradley. There is no argument that he is a very talented player (even if his talents have not quite produced the high level results expected) but he was sold a very different prospect when he transferred here from Roma. TFC was going to be “his” club, built around him, led by him. There is no guarantee that a new president will see an above-average MLS holding midfielder as something quite as important to the future of this club. The question then becomes: if Bradley’s internal influence is undermined, can the club captain remain a happy camper? This would be a delicate challenge for a new man who will want to stamp TFC as his, and primarily his, domain.

There simply cannot be the expectancy that MLSE can hire someone of the magnitude of either of these candidates and not have them shake this club’s foundations upon arrival. Currently TFC are doing their very best to be an Eastern Conference Play-In Match side. Yes, they should be playing better but is there really an identifiable vision going forward that isn’t at the whim of the next hiring or firing? If there is, most fans aren’t able to identify it beyond one or two young players that look promising. Of course there’s the rub that is TFC. That has never existed here.

No matter who MLSE hire to run TFC, whether it is a glamour hiring from one of Europe’s biggest clubs or another promising wonk from the halls of MLS headquarters – supporters aren’t going to believe in them for an awfully long time. In fact, after the shiny, loud corporate machinations of the last few seasons asking “why we can’t be great?” and promising much while delivering little – another paradigm shift will be met with suspicion at best. Starting from expansion club; the Mo Johnston British Era; the PrekiMo Mini-Era; the Aron Winter Project; the final throes of Anselmi’s Kingdom; the brief Payne; The Monorail Salesman; and most recently Team CanAmerica, TFC has been one 5 Year Plan cut off at the knees after the other.

Make no mistake, majority of the Five Year Plans shouldn’t have been five minute plans but when the stylish, well-designed Italian dust settles, the biggest challenge for the new president will be convincing a fan-base that in two years’ time the club won’t be embarking on a (INSERT MAJOR FOOTBALLING NATION HERE) revolution and yet another exhausting new beginning. MLSE must get this hire right. The right man, with the right mentality and the right motivation. Blow the bloody doors off again with no gold to show for it and it will be “Ciao a tutti!” for many TFC supporting paisanos of all nationalities.

Author: Tony Walsh

Tony Walsh is a writer, former minor-league broadcaster and failed astronaut. Born into supporting an underachieving football club only to end up supporting a second underachieving football club - through what must be deemed as soft immigration policies - he continues to make terrible life choices. Walsh is a keen observer of the malarkey-rife sport of football and is considered one of the leading voices on the Collin Samuel Obesity Epidemic.

Share This Post On

1 Comment

  1. I think this is all a product of mis-translation. When an Italian exec said he was off to “the Eternal City”, someone accidentally typed it as “the Eternal Shitty” in English and voila!

    Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *