To avoid the apparent ignominy of including a player on the Italy national team roster who happens to be playing professionally in North America, coach Antonio Conte had to execute some compelling roster gymnastics.
Justifying the exclusion of reigning Major League Soccer MVP Sebastian Giovinco, however, involved flat making stuff up.
Conte declared that excluding Giovinco and national team legend Andrea Pirlo from the provisional roster for the 2016 European Championships was a product of their decision to leave Europe to play in America.
“If you chose to go and play,” Conte said, “then you can pay the consequences in footballing terms.”
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The 30 members of the Italy team come from Serie A, France’s Ligue 1 and England’s Premier League. One, striker Eder, was born and raised in Brazil and entered the Italy national team to some nativist controversy one year ago. Forward Graziano Pelle is a 30-year-old who has only 11 caps and played inconsistently at Southampton this season. Defender Matteo Darmian lost his starting job as Manchester United’s BPL season dissolved this spring.
All might very well belong on the Italy roster, but excluding Giovinco because of the league in which he operates is not only dumb, it also contradicts the message delivered to the player when he left for Toronto FC by a noted expert on Italian soccer: Antonio Conte.
“I know Giovinco well, and he’s not going there just to earn money,” Conte said at the time. “It’s a great opportunity, one as a player I would have grabbed.” Conte added that it could be a disadvantage as far as national team contention to be so far removed, “but I always keep an eye out, anyway.”
What Conte missed by keeping his eyes shut was Giovinco’s development into one of the most dynamic soccer players in the 20-year history of MLS. This might seem like a faint-praise situation, but there were 31 players from the league on 2014 World Cup rosters, including Australia's Tim Cahill, Iran's Steven Beitashour and Brazil's Julio Cesar. If someone is accomplishing what Giovinco is in MLS, he ought to at least be worth a look in training camp.
Giovinco was not playing regularly for Juventus when Toronto FC had the brilliant idea to pursue him as a designated player. Since Giovinco began in Canada in March 2015, he has played 45 games and delivered 30 goals and 18 assists. He was the league’s MVP last season and its Golden Boot winner. He is not just producing goals, he is creating magic. His quickness, his inventiveness, his surprising power for a player who stands only 5-4 and weighs 137 pounds — the entire package is astounding to behold.
It would be easy enough to dismiss all of this merely as the product of a player functioning in a lesser league. There is no arguing that MLS is beneath the level of Serie A or the Premier League or any of Europe’s top half-dozen leagues. But for all the profound talents that have entered MLS in recent years — Kaka, Didier Drogba, Clint Dempsey, Jermain Defoe, Gio dos Santos — none has had the impact Giovinco has delivered.
Conte said he sent someone over to scout Giovinco and Pirlo. He did not specify the person dispatched had ever watched an actual soccer game, but he did declare, “We’ve made technical choices and nothing has been done just at random.”
Of course. There appears no hint of accident here. Soccer writer Andrea Canales makes the very good point that MLS was flattered in the sense that Conte was forced by European journalists to defend Giovinco’s absence. But it would seem Giovinco very much was excluded with intent.
Whether the purpose is to stand as a warning to other promising Italian players that they risk national team careers if they pursue more money and playing time in MLS or to take a very specific swipe at Giovinco, it is the Italy squad that will absorb the consequence. He would be an ideal player to have available as a late sub in a game where the Azzuri needed to invent a goal to draw or win.
At the 2014 World Cup, Italy failed to advance to the knockout stages, one of the key results a 1-0 loss to eventual Group D champion Costa Rica. At the core of the Costa Rica defense that day was a center back named Giancarlo Gonzalez, who then was in his fourth month with the Columbus Crew of MLS. He was so good in that tournament the Crew could not hold him when European teams came along offering significant transfer fees.
Gonzalez plays for Palermo now, in Italy.
An interesting coincidence, to say the least.