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Kelly: TFC’s Sebastian Giovinco driven to win in spite of critics

After practice on Friday, Sebastian Giovinco walked out of the locker room carrying a plexiglass cube containing a soccer ball.

The cube wasn't big, but Giovinco is small. He looked like a 12-year-old holding a microwave oven.

What's the ball for?

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"It is for hat trick," Giovinco said in English, referencing the three goals he'd scored in a playoff game two weeks ago. "They do this in Europe."

When Giovinco scored one of his five hat tricks as a Toronto FC player, team officials made him one of these souvenirs. To their mild surprise, he was delighted by it. So they keep making them.

The cube is an awkward thing – too bulky for a mantle; too garish for a coffee table. Where are you going to put it?

Giovinco widened his eyes, a little annoyed at the stupidity of the question: "In my home."

Beyond the evident skill and perpetually turning engine, this is why Giovinco is such a special player in and for Major League Soccer.

The league has had a baseball team of European stars swan in and out.

It is difficult to imagine a Steven Gerrard or a Frank Lampard saying, "Oh my God, a commemorative cube? For me?! Give it here. It's coming home right now."

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Also, it's hard to see either of them, at their age and low ebb of career motivation, scoring multiple hat tricks.

Almost alone among his continental peers, Giovinco is a man who takes his work in North America seriously on its own merits.

More to the point, he's someone who sees every outstanding performance as a rebuke to the people who continue to undervalue him back home.

Whenever his attention is in danger of drifting, some Italian swell does Toronto FC the favour of reminding Giovinco of his place in the world.

Last year, a comprehensive poll in the Guardian rated him the 94th best player on Earth. Only four Italians ranked higher. The best of them is a goalkeeper.

Giovinco was still left off Italy's 23-man Euro 2016 squad.

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"If you choose to go and play [in MLS] then you can pay the consequences," shrugged Italy coach Antonio Conte.

Italy scored six goals in five games, suggesting they could use Giovinco's help in that department.

Two weeks ago, led by a new manager, Italy passed over Giovinco again. This time, the explanation was put in more expansive terms.

"I have done everything to help him, but the reality is that he plays in a league that doesn't matter much," Italian boss Giampiero Ventura said. "The problem is that if you play in that type of league, and you get used to playing in that type of league, it becomes a problem of mentality."

There is no more loaded word in international soccer than "mentality" – it extends across language barriers and footballing cultures.

Having "a good mentality" suggests all sorts of superlatives, each of them laid on the foundation of pristine character. It implies that you are not only a good player, but also a good person.

The bad mentality sort? He's shiftless, stupid, full of himself.

The coding buried underneath Ventura's answer suggests that Giovinco is such a player – someone who's given up on the challenge of Europe in return for the easy money and easier play of the soccer scrublands.

In the past, Giovinco rose to such challenges. His 2015 introduction as a Toronto FC player turned into a lengthy screed against Italy and Italians. Upon arrival in Canada, he got a tattoo – a cartoon blob flashing the 'L' for "loser." Giovinco was the loser in this formulation, an inside-out screw you to his critics back home.

He doesn't do that any more. He shrugged off Ventura's criticism at the time.

Asked about it again on Friday, he smirked angrily as the question was put to him. (Giovinco understands English well, but prefers to speak on the record in Italian.)

By the time the question had been translated, he'd decided to ignore it by answering something completely different.

He was bafflingly left out as an MLS MVP finalist this year. His coach, Greg Vanney, made a meal of the snub, suggesting he's figured out the key to this particular player's mentality – that Giovinco is far more motivated by slaps than tickles.

Giovinco has always been an affable sort, but you can see the personality screws tightening as his time here extends. His patience with the off-field demands of a North American superstar are visibly wearing thin.

Called out Friday to talk for the umpteenth time this week, Giovinco snapped irritatedly, "You said just one more interview, in Montreal!"

But he still came out, cube and all.

Obviously, he is the key to Toronto's home-and-away conference final, beginning Tuesday at Olympic Stadium.

Ventura was right about this much – in this league, Giovinco's ability is such that he can win a game by himself. When at his best, there is no way to contain him. It only opens up a half-dozen holes for teammates.

Presumably, Montreal will have developed Giovinco-specific defensive schemes, but one suspects the Italian's key man matchup is someone who will not mark him – the Impact's Didier Drogba.

Once the greatest striker alive, the faded Ivorian has enjoyed the European respect Giovinco is still denied. What better opponent to outstrip man-to-man.

Giovinco didn't want to talk about it on Friday, or much else.

"My only focus is Tuesday," he said flatly, still clutching his cube, waiting to be excused.

He's made a lot of money here already. He's won top individual awards, scored the most goals, been so clearly the best that he has set the league's standard for at least a generation.

Right now, it doesn't seem to matter much. All the cubes in the world won't change minds back home.

So what would be his definition of success?

"I'll have succeeded when I've won," Giovinco said. "Then we can talk about success."

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