Toronto FC sold Sebastian Giovinco to Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal FC on Wednesday. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Show me the money: Toronto FC sells star striker Sebastian Giovinco to Saudi club

TORONTO — The Sebastian Giovinco era in Toronto is over.

Toronto FC, unwilling to meet the Italian international’s contract demands, sold Giovinco to Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal FC on Wednesday.

Toronto had already turned down one bid for the Atomic Ant from a Middle East club. But facing an impasse in contact negotiations, it got what it could for Giovinco on Wednesday with the January FIFA transfer window about to close.

Toronto did not provide details of the transfer fee. But Al-Hilal, a 15-time Saudi champion, said Giovinco had signed a three-year deal in Los Angeles.

“Welcome Giovinco,” the Riyadh-based club said in a social media video posting that turned Giovinco’s Toronto red into its uniform blue.

Goodbye BMO Field. Hello King Saud University Stadium.

Despite Giovinco’s protestations that he liked Toronto and wanted to stay here, it appears it came down to ‘Show me the money.’ While the 32-year-old Giovinco said he thought he had another six years left in his playing career, who can blame him for hitting up the Saudi ATM while he could.

“I’d like to thank the fans and my teammates for four special years playing for Toronto FC,” Giovinco said in a statement. “I’d also like to thank the club for helping me as I transition into the next phase of my career.”

Better bring a wheelbarrow.

TFC had been in daily talks with Giovinco’s agent about a new deal, according to team president Bill Manning. The Italian was the top earner in MLS last year at US$7.115 million.

Manning said he had offered a new deal that would have put him in the top six or seven in the league, which last season meant at least $5 million a year.

“They (the Giovinco camp) don’t like it,” Manning said in an interview Tuesday night.

Giovinco, who wears his heart on his sleeve, had made it clear he wanted the matter resolved. Toronto wanted a happy Giovinco but was not going to fling money at him, given his age.

Plus it knew he was able to sign a pre-contract with another club come July.

“He leaves Toronto as the greatest player in club history,” Manning said graciously. “We wish Seba and his family nothing but the best as he begins a new chapter.”

The former MLS MVP had missed pre-season training this week in California with a club spokesman saying Giovinco had been excused due to “leg tightness.”

But Giovinco, whose MLS deal was expiring at the end of the 2019 season, was unhappy with the progress of contract negotiations. His camp rattled the cage, with Giovinco staying at a separate hotel. And then a winning bid with money to spend emerged.

Giovinco’s contract negotiations had been “heightened” by external pressures, according to Manning, with the presence of so-called soccer brokers, well-connected promoters who look to strike deals that agents then attempt to consummate with the clubs in question.

A match was made Wednesday.

Giovinco’s departure leaves Toronto in a bind given Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez has decamped to Qatar’s Al-Arabi SC. But new GM Ali Curtis offered some optimism.

“His departure presents both challenges and opportunities,” Curtis said of Giovinco. “Obviously, replacing a player like Sebastian is difficult, but we are working diligently and are confident that we will be adding a new designated player in the near future who will be an exciting addition to our team.”

The little man leaves huge boots to fill. Giovinco was perhaps the best player ever to grace MLS.

Giovinco, Toronto’s all-time leading scorer with more than a few club records, and Vazquez accounted for 21 goals and 24 assists last season. And they were largely responsible for TFC’s creativity on offence. Both made the players around them better.

Their departure strengthens the bargaining position of striker Jozy Altidore, whose contract also expires at the end of the 2019 season. Take away Altidore and you have young backups in Ayo Akinola, Jordan Hamilton and Jon Bakero, who have seven regular-season goals between them.

Juventus’ loss was MLS’ gain when Giovinco came on board in 2015, terrorizing defenders with his pace and guile. He could finish with both feet and was deadly from set pieces.

In four seasons with Toronto, Giovinco had 68 goals and 52 assists in 114 regular-season games (111 starts). He won MVP honours in his debut 2015 season, when he was directly involved in 65 per cent of Toronto’s 58 goals with 22 goals and 16 assists.

In all competitions, he had 83 goals and 64 assists in 142 appearances.

He was named to the MLS Best XI three times (2015, 2016, 2017) and was an MLS all-star four times (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018). Giovinco won the George Gross Memorial Trophy as Canadian Championship MVP (2017), CONCACAF Champions League Golden Ball (2018) and was named to both the CONCACAF and CONCACAF Champions League Best XI in 2018.

During his remarkable 2015 MVP season, five goals came from free kicks and three from penalties. Twelve were scored from inside the penalty box with 10 from outside. Eighteen came from his right foot and four from his left.

Giovinco conjured up gorgeous goals from all angles.

There were audacious chips that wrong-footed goalies while seeming to defy physics. Swerving runs that left defenders tied in knots. And power shots that nobody could stop.

“One for the ages,” MLS executive vice-president Todd Durbin said in awarding Giovinco the Landon Donovan Most Valuable Player Award.

Giovinco virtually ran the table in his first year in North America. He won the Golden Boot as top scorer, was named top newcomer and voted onto the league’s Best XI.

Giovinco, deceptively strong for five foot four and 135 pounds, was fouled a league-high 90 times in 2015. Still he only missed one game, due to an adductor injury.

He scored 14 career MLS goals directly from free kicks in the regular season with six in 2017 — the most in a single season in MLS history (since 2003 when the league started tracking them). He also had one direct free kick goal in the MLS playoffs.

As Giovinco went, so did Toronto.

TFC made the playoffs for the first time in his first year, reached the MLS Cup final in 2016 and won it all in 2017, capturing the MLS championship, Supporters’ Shield and Canadian Championship.

Giovinco did not take losing well as he showed after the season-ending 3-0 playoff loss in Montreal in 2016.

“He exploded and the locker room felt it,” coach Greg Vanney said at the time. “Some of the chairs and various things felt it. He’s passionate about winning.”

Giovinco never held back. Taken off after a two-goal performance against Chicago in April 217, he angrily slapped a stanchion, showered and went home. With just five minutes remaining, Vanney had wanted to add some defensive steel while allowing the fans to celebrate Giovinco’s marvellous performance.

Giovinco just wanted to keep playing — and scoring.

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment spent millions on BMO Field, including pitch upgrades. But the playing surface was never good enough for Giovinco.

“The field is an amateur field,” he said dismissively in September 2018. “We are professionals. We are accustomed to playing on a professional field. This is not a professional field.”

Last season, he had 13 goals and 15 assists in 28 games as Toronto suffered through a down year.

Fittingly he scored the final goal of the season in a 4-1 win over eventual champion Atlanta United. Giovinco carefully measured a chipped cross from Jay Chapman, swung a leg and it went in.

He did not celebrate. A dismal season was over. And now so is Giovinco’s TFC career.

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