Jermain Defoe’s inability to force a move out of Canada only six months into a four-year-deal isn’t a win for Toronto FC. It’s the continuation of a doomed love affair.
There weren’t a lot of good options for any party involved in this slow, then sudden souring, but this is the worst of them. Better to be rid of a player who’s already jumped overboard rather then drag him along behind you like an anchor.
As he has throughout this overseas misadventure, Defoe miscalculated, leaving himself only hours to negotiate a move back to England. Too little time, especially considering his inflated $8-million (U.S.)-a-year salary.
He’ll return shortly banging on about loyalty, but once your general manager has begun publicly talking about offers on the table, you’re already gone. This process is too far along for Defoe to remain here past the winter transfer window, which opens a month after the end of the MLS season.
In the interim we’re left with this corrosive shambles, ginned up out of what should have been the best sports story in the city.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment went to extraordinary lengths to woo Defoe. Its multiplatform flirtation included personal pitches from Drake and LeBron James. The final deal involved nine separate contracts. They offered to move his entire family to Toronto.
Even at the highest level, most deals involve a bunch of suits in a room arguing over numbers. This was something very rarely seen, and never for someone of Defoe’s calibre. This was romance.
The 31-year-old English star was an occasionally excellent player with a history of being punted from team to team under a cloud. You can understand why he was smitten. It feels good to be wanted, even if you aren’t that interested.
Toronto FC vastly overpaid him, which was the problem – both at the beginning and as it nears the end. You cannot rent a cornerstone. That’s how Defoe thought of this – as too good a score to turn down.
He made a meal of the “new challenges” line, but he came here for only a couple of reasons: money and the slim chance that regular, productive play in North America would bump him up the pecking order for a spot on England’s World Cup team. When that hope fizzled, all that was left was the drudgery of a middling club in a fringe league. That wasn’t close to enough.
As with David Beckham before him, Defoe clearly does not rate Major League Soccer. He’s interested in it as a business proposition.
Beckham saw moving to America as the first step in his transition to a life after football. It was a decision made for the future. Defoe did it for the past – as a rebuke to all those clubs who’d given up on him – and the present – to get really rich.
Both are Faustian bargains, but only one of them made sense. A far cannier operator, Beckham adapted himself to his reduced professional circumstances. Defoe has not.
From the off, you got the sense that he had no idea what he was getting himself into.
After his first home game in Toronto, there was a huge press crush in the team dressing room. In England, the jobbing media don’t get anywhere near the players. As we piled into the small space, Defoe was watching us, gobsmacked. The room was heaving like a nightclub.
A cluster of five or six TV cameras set themselves up in a semi-circle three feet from Defoe’s bench. The player was trying to fight his way through the crush, wearing only a pair of underwear.
As he sat down, the lights turned on.
Defoe’s head jerked up: “You trying to get a picture of my willy or something?”
The lights turned off.
Defoe was not best pleased at the time, and has never managed to get there.
He’s spent the rest of the season hiding from the press, a chore Beckham embraced.
When he’s fit, Defoe does his job. You can say that much for him. Having played a little over a half-a-year here, his 11 goals are the second-highest season total in team history.
But aside from those tallies, he’s given very little. He’s never settled. He’s never seemed happy. He tied himself to his former teammate, manager Ryan Nelsen, who spent most of the year losing the rest of the room. He’s often hurt. Everything in his body language screams the truth – that Defoe thinks he’s slumming.
Once Nelsen was fired, Defoe felt relieved of the responsibility of even pretending to care. Who flies home to Europe midway through the season when they’re nursing a minor injury? Someone who’s trying to escape. His camp began springing leaks immediately about how much he disliked playing here. Now, the great phony reversal looms.
Though he hasn’t yet left, we can already start talking about Defoe’s legacy. It’s barren ground, for everyone involved.
He’s reinforced his own reputation for petulance and changeability.
He’s humiliated the team that worked so hard to make him their poster boy (quite literally). Toronto FC built the basis of their new relevance on this one player’s presence. Now that he’s tried to leave, it’s gone.
Once again, TFC proves that it’s not just the most dysfunctional professional sports franchise on the continent, it may very well be cursed. Someone ought to take the money they will eventually save on Defoe and spend it on an in-house exorcist.
On a macro level, Defoe’s done the most damage to the league. MLS has spent years carefully trying to build up its global reputation as a substantial outfit. Once more, they’re being paraded through the British press like a rinky-dink retirement home for has-beens.
Toronto FC is in the midst of a slide out of the playoffs, having won three of their past 13 this season. Defoe may still need surgery on a sports hernia. It may be over by the time he returns.
In the larger sense, it already is.