He did not marry a Spice Girl, but Torsten Frings has pushed his share of product in his native Germany, and his separation from the national team was a matter of debate among the chattering classes.
While much of the attention will be on David Beckham in Wednesday night’s sold-out CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final at the Rogers Centre, it isn’t only the L.A. Galaxy midfielder and teammates Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane with lengthy international résumés.
It isn’t a stretch to say that Frings, the 35-year-old TFC captain who had 79 international caps and 10 goals for Germany from 2001 to 2009, is the brain and heart of Toronto FC. And who knows? Maybe at some point one of his younger, less experienced teammates will hear it from Frings.
“In the heat of the moment, it needs to be said quickly and, maybe, sometimes it comes out a bit harsh,” Frings said. “But it still needs to be said. Nothing’s personal. You clarify and move on.
“I’m open for criticism, too. In fact, if a young player sees something I’m doing, he should feel free to tell me. It’s not just for the better of the team. He’s making me better, too.”
Even their opponents know this is the biggest game in TFC history.
“This is a big moment for them,” said Donovan, whose voice on Tuesday suggested he’s recovered from a bout of bronchitis and ready to play. “I think we’re all impressed given the group they had to get through.”
Frings is becoming more comfortable speaking English, although on this day he has Swiss-born, German-speaking TFC goalkeeper Stefan Frei serving as an interpreter. Truth is, not much has been lost in translation since the day last season when Toronto FC consultant Jurgen Klinsmann telephoned Frings and asked him if he wanted “a new challenge.”
Frings, whose powerful shot led him to be featured in a Nike ad campaign based on the British version of the Jackass franchise, called Dirty Sanchez, came to Toronto FC after a 14-year career in the Bundesliga, with stops at Werder Bremen, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. Toronto FC’s chronic defensive deficiencies have had him too often mired in his own end of the pitch, that shot and tremendous ability to distribute with both feet less on display than the team would like. Even now, he admits he doesn’t know whether head coach Aron Winter will play him at midfielder, as a defender or right back. “But I’ll do what helps them,” he said, shrugging.
It was Frings’s versatility – his tackling and ability to play box to box – that made the native of Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia region a trusted regular in the 2002 and 2006 World Cup, as well as Euro 2008. Yet Frings did not receive a gift-wrapped invitation to his country’s national team. By 25, he had just two international caps, and when Rudi Voller left and Joachim Low took over in 2006, there were signs of a fissure. It was open for good in January of 2010 when Low said publicly he had no place on the team for Frings, at a time of dislocation caused by an injury to captain Michael Ballack in March of 2009, and the suicide of goalkeeper Robert Enke in November of 2010.
For Frings, moving on meant crossing the ocean and delaying an anticipated move into coaching with Werder Bremen. Truthfully? There is no professional athlete in Toronto with Frings’s pedigree and résumé.
“From my experiences, the better players I’ve seen or practised with or played with are the ones who keep things simple,” Frei said. “They do the simple things but they do them exquisitely, you know? That’s Torsten. He knows what makes him who he is and sticks with it. Very simple, but perfect passes every time.
“It’s almost like you can spy on Torsten 24/7, to see how he conducts himself,” Frei said.
So what advice can Frings impart to his younger teammates?
“I’ll tell them to take this experience and soak it all up,” Frings said. “You don’t play in front of big crowds like this and good players like Beckham and Donovan all the time. You should relish the opportunity, give it your all, play yourself into a rhythm and make the best of it. Just enjoy it. Just enjoy the opportunity you’re given.”
The great ones do it like this, especially on the way down. The trick is the smile, making eye contact, being polite, and saying little, but in a nice way. And so David Beckham came into Toronto on Tuesday, training with the rest of the Los Angeles Galaxy on the plastic pitch at the Rogers Centre ahead of their meeting with Toronto FC on Wednesday. This is a team with an abundance of talent, favoured to repeat as defending Major League Soccer champions, with Beckham apparently resigned now to finishing out his career in Los Angeles – although possibly not any time soon.
Asked how he’s had to tailor his game and training to deal with vagaries of age, the 36-year-old responded: “Not much. I love training, and as long as you take care of yourself and look after your body and train as much as you need there’s no reason you can’t play as long as you want to.”
The game Wednesday will be played on artificial turf, since harvesting a grass field was difficult at this time of the season. Irish international Robbie Keane wrinkled his nose at the pitch after the workout Tuesday – “Me personally, I don’t think we should be playing on plastic pitch, it can be dangerous so it’s a shame but at the end of the day we have to do it.” – while Beckham shrugged and said: “At least it’s a touch warmer [indoors]”
Toronto FC goalkeeper Stefan Frei has wondered about the lighting indoors, while vowing to “treat each ball with respect” because of the seams.
The Galaxy have a certain degree of respect for Toronto FC. The teams play tough matches traditionally and Galaxy forward Landon Donovan said that he felt TFC was the most improved team in MLS from the first half to second half of last season, noting the presence of German international Torsten Frings. “He makes them composed and comfortable,” he said.
Frings has stressed the need to enjoy the sold-out surroundings on Wednesday. Beckham concurred, saying: “It’s about going into the game and relaxing and enjoying it. These opportunities, they don’t come around very often.”
The teams will meet in the return leg of the competition next Wednesday in southern California.