Atomic Ant – Sebastian Giovinco, the hero Italy needs

Sebastian Giovinco has been lighting up the MLS but ignored by the Italian National team despite their own lack of talent. Danny Lewis investigates why.
Atomic Ant - Sebastian Giovinco, the hero Italy needs
Atomic Ant – Sebastian Giovinco, the hero Italy needs

The world watched on as Italy were defeated by Sweden, missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1958. Jakob Johansson’s deflected effort was the difference between the two sides, with Italy unable to get a single goal in 180 minutes of football.

Images of Gianluigi Buffon with tears running down his face and Danielle de Rossi’s fury on the bench were soon doing the rounds on social media, with many questioning the direction Italian football is taking. There were calls for reform in Serie A and the jury was out on those who failed to get their country to the World Cup as was expected of them. However, there was little mention of those who were readily available but not selected by Gian Piero Ventura. One of those men was Sebastian Giovinco.

The 30-year-old five-foot four-inch trequartista will have watched these events unfold from almost four and a half thousand miles away in Toronto, after being shunned by the Italian national team since his move to the MLS. There have been arguments both for and against his inclusion, with some citing his brilliant form whenever he’s had regular game time as a reason why he should be involved in the Azzurri set-up, while others say that his exclusion from the national team is an expected consequence of opting to play in the MLS due to its perceived lack of quality.

However, the MLS has shown continuous progression since the Italian’s arrival and is filled with exciting talent. The notion that arrival on American and Canadian shores is for veterans receiving their final big payday before retirement is now becoming more and more outdated. This can be highlighted by Atlanta United’s $15 million acquisition of 18-year-old Independiente attacking midfielder Ezequiel Barco, who already has a Copa Sudamericana title to his name.

Another move that shows the respected talent in Major League Soccer is Manchester City’s signing of England under-21 international Jack Harrison from their City Football Group partners New York City before loaning him to Middlesbrough with a view to the winger playing Premier League football within the next few years.

The league may not be at the level of Europe’s best, but it is highly debatable whether simply playing in the MLS can still be seen as reason enough to completely eliminate players from the national team selection process. Giovinco has been one of those players left out in the wilderness.

The person behind the player who has taken the MLS by storm came from humble beginnings. Sebastian Giovinco grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Turin which he shared with his parents and younger brother. He started off playing football on the dirt pitch near his home and after around a year of playing on the unforgiving surface, he was eventually spotted by a Juventus scout. He then went on to become an ever-present member of the Azzurri’s youth teams while learning his trade in the Bianconeri’s academy.

Between under-16 and under-21 level, he made a combined 52 appearances for his country, netting nine goals. On top of that, he also played in all four of Italy’s matches at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, scoring their first goal of the tournament in a 3-0 win against Honduras. Giovinco has represented his country’s first team 23 times, scoring once and assisting three times. His goal came in a 4-3 Confederations Cup win against Japan in 2013, as he latched onto the end of Claudio Marchisio’s pass across the box to grab the winning goal of the game in the dying moments. One goal in 23 games may not sound like a great return, but of the 23 matches he played, Giovinco only started five times.

Just two of those 23 appearances, totaling just 39 minutes on the pitch has come since his move to Toronto in January 2015. Having been left out of the squad for the Azzurri’s first six matches following the move, he came in to play the last 28 minutes of a win against Norway, before making his final appearance to date in an 11-minute cameo at the end of a comfortable victory over Azerbaijan on October 10th 2015.

His absence from the side comes despite him being more productive in each of his three seasons in the MLS than he ever was in Italy. His best season in his home nation’s top tier came during the 2011/12 campaign when he got 15 goals and 13 assists in 36 league games while on loan at Parma. Since moving to Toronto he got a combined 35 goals and assists in 33 MLS games in 2015, 31 in 28 during 2016 and 22 in 25 last campaign.

One thing that stands out about Giovinco’s MLS goal haul is that 14 of those have come from free kicks, breaking David Beckham’s conversion record of 10 in the MLS in the process. In addition to this, Giovinco has by far outdone all of those in Europe’s top leagues since 2015 when it comes to free kicks. A study by MLSsoccer.com showed that in the time it took the man nicknamed the Atomic Ant to get 14 strikes his closest competitor from the MLS, the Premier League, Ligue 1, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga was Paulo Dybala who had half his return with seven. This means he is also far ahead of Lionel Messi (6), Dimitri Payet (5) and Hakan Çalhanoglu (4), who are considered amongst the deadliest in the world from dead ball situations.

Of those to convert four or more free kicks only Didier Drogba was more efficient in minutes on the pitch per direct free kick goal and Christian Eriksen was the only other player in the mentioned leagues to score two direct free kicks in one game. All of this has to highlight that Sebastian Giovinco is one of the best free-kick takers around at the moment. It should also be noted that Italy didn’t score once from a free kick during their 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

However, these numbers weren’t deemed worthy of a call-up to the national team because of the league they were achieved in.  When Gian Piero Ventura was asked about his exclusion of Giovinco from his line up, the then Italy boss replied: “Giovinco is a different story. 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.”

Giovinco’s overall contributions in matches may not have been considered important by Ventura, but they have been vital in Toronto reaching the MLS Cup Play Offs in all three years he’s been there. The Italian has also shown he can impress whilst there, as in 11 Play-Off matches the Atomic Ant has scored five times and got three assists. In the first Play-Off campaign he was unable to prevent his side being beaten 3-0 by Montreal Impact. The following year he got four goals, including a hat-trick against New York City FC before they were beaten 5-4 on penalties in the final by Seattle Sounders.

This loss spurred the Italian and his side on for the 2017 season. They were arguably the best side the MLS has ever seen, breaking the record for regular season points, earning the Supporters’ Shield and the Canadian Championship which came with a spot in the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League. Following that they navigated their way past New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew to set up a repeat of the previous year’s MLS Cup Play-Off final.

Toronto’s opponents had Román Torres who scored the goal that sealed Panama’s place at this summer’s World Cup, Nicolás Lodeiro who has been capped 53 times by Uruguay and Gustav Svensson who played for Sweden in that significant Play-Off win against Italy.

Toronto’s Michael Bradley, Victor Vazquez and Jozy Altidore all had a brilliant match with Stefan Frei constantly peppered with shots in the Sounders goal and despite an outstanding performance from the Swiss keeper, Toronto were so dominant that they came out as MLS Cup Champions with a 2-0 win. Despite all of these great performances, it was arguably Sebastian Giovinco who made the difference.

Toronto really did dominate throughout the proceedings, but Seattle Sounders had just about done enough to give Frei a chance of saving the numerous shots fired in at him. That is until Giovinco carved them open in the 67th minute. The Italian had the ball by the halfway line, drew Sounders center back Chad Marshall towards him before playing a perfectly weighted pass to his strike partner Altidore, who raced through to score and put Toronto ahead.

He doesn’t have the official assist for Toronto’s second but the trequartista was instrumental in earning it. With Seattle pushing to get an equaliser, they had committed men up the pitch leaving two defenders to deal with Giovinco, Vazquez and Armando Cooper. When the ball came to the Italian on the edge of the box many would have gone for glory, but Giovinco was smart enough to slide the ball through to Cooper. The Panamanian rounded the keeper and hit the post, but luckily for the reds, it fell kindly to Vazquez who steered it into the gaping net.

Giovinco acquired a winning mentality while at Juventus, where he won two Coppa Italia and Serie A titles. His frustration at not doing the same with Toronto had been clear before this match, but his unparalleled joy from the victory was even more obvious. Toronto had just won the prestigious MLS Cup for the first time in their history and he had been a vital component in that happening. As Bradley raised the trophy above his head Giovinco had the widest of smiles as he jumped up with him. Only six of the squad that lost against Sweden won their domestic league last season.

This may have been the first time that Giovinco had won USA’s biggest footballing team accolade, but this tops off what he had already achieved individually. It is hard to argue against the opinion that the Italian has been the best player in the MLS since his arrival. In his first season he was awarded the MVP and in the other two he earned himself a place in the MLS Team of the Year, with no other player in the league having been selected in every team during this period.

Some will argue that he is not up against the best players in the world in the MLS, as would often be the case in international football. However, Giovinco’s achievements should not be undermined, as neither David Beckham or Thierry Henry managed to win the MVP during their stints in America, while Italian legend Andrea Pirlo who played for the full 90 minutes for the Azzurri three times while with New York City FC before retiring from international duty didn’t make the Team of the Year once. Also, Jermain Defoe impressed during his year with Toronto before returning to the Premier League and England national team, but he also didn’t manage to reach the impact of The Atomic Ant in the MLS.

This coming season the Italian will be up against Atlanta United’s exciting attackers, Los Angeles FC’s new recruit Carlos Vela, Toronto teammate and former Belgian Jupiler Pro League player of the year Victor Vazquez, Kendall Waston who’s goal sent Costa Rica to the World Cup and last campaign’s winner Diego Valeri for the MVP so it is safe to say that there will be plenty of competition in the league this year. While some players in and around the national team have stagnated with a lack of ggame-time at club level, Giovinco took the risk to leave his home nation and has maintained his status as one of the biggest players in a league which has grown year upon year as a result.

Despite this, while Giovinco hasn’t featured for his national team, there have been plenty of MLS players who did so in 2017 alone, despite having a lesser impact domestically. Examples are Giovani and Jonathon dos Santos who have played for LA Galaxy and Mexico, Laurent Ciman and Blerim Dzemaili were consistently called up by Belgium and Switzerland respectively while at Montreal Impact and David Villa was reselected for the Spain squad while representing New York City FC.

With his achievements in mind, it’s difficult to see what more Giovinco can do to join those players on the international stage and get himself back into the Italian national team. With a new manager coming in and the introduction of the UEFA Nations League this summer, at the age of 30 this may be the best chance the Atomic Ant will ever get to pull on that blue jersey again. Whether he should start is a completely different topic, but there should definitely be debate around whether Giovinco should be allowed back into the Italian fold. Toronto’s star man certainly has the talent, the question is whether he will get the opportunity while he remains in the MLS.

Sebastian Giovinco may not be the hero Italy deserves, but he’s the hero Italy needs.

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Danny Lewis

Freelance sport writer and final year Multimedia Journalism student at Bournemouth University with a fascination for football's obscure stories.