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Sebastian Giovinco #10 of the Toronto FC in action against the Columbus Crew SC on March 14, 2015 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Just inside his right elbow, Sebastian Giovinco has a tattoo of a smiling cartoon blob flashing the "L" sign over its forehead.

"Loser," Giovinco explains, in a rare burst of English.

The "loser" is Giovinco himself.

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After deciding six months ago to leave Juventus (hand way up here) for Toronto FC (hand way down there), he was slated in his national press.

It is difficult to fully capture the influence that group has over the opinions of soccer-obsessed (i.e. all) Italians. If those silken jackals want a coach fired, he's fired. If they want a player gone, he's gone. And if they decide you are no good, you stop mattering. Woe betides the man who catches their sneering notice.

"Most of them were saying, 'You're afraid to challenge yourself. It's simple to go into an easier league. That's why you've chosen Toronto,'" Giovinco says, speaking through a translator. "It was just common chatter. I don't want to talk about it."

Very obviously, it bothered him. A lot. He spent the bulk of his introductory news conference wielding a metaphoric hacksaw, cutting all ties with the country of his birth: "In Italy, I had many problems.… I wanted to find a city, a team, that from the beginning welcomed me."

Within a month of arriving in Canada, he'd decided on the tattoo.

"You think I'm a loser. I know that's what you think I am. So, this is for you guys," he says flatly, staring hard at nothing. He purses his lips in that very Italian way and waggles a hand dismissively.

Giovinco's translator, Antonello, summarizes thusly: "It's an eff you."

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It can be fairly said that while Giovinco would probably be a great player were he fully contented, his engine runs at much higher RPMs on resentment. To hear him tell it, the golden pitch that got him to Toronto was, "We want you." (The offer of $7.1-million [U.S.] a year – then the highest salary in league history – probably helped as well.)

But no one else put it to him that plainly. So here he is, reimagining what soccer can be at this level and transforming a cursed franchise.

Throughout its history, TFC has not sailed the seas of MLS. It's dragged the ocean floor. The team has spent stupid amounts of money trying to solve the problem. It's still not solved.

Currently, the team has one hand flailing above water level, trying to hang on to a playoff position. This looks very much like déjà vu – a good run through the beginning and middle of the season, undone by a hundred-storey swoon at the end.

The difference in this case is Giovinco. He is keeping this team afloat by force of will. Only two dozen games into his MLS career, he may already be the finest player in league history.

You could describe what he's done statistically.

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Kelly2 He has more goals (16) than the next five scorers on his team combined. He leads MLS in combined points – goals and assists (27). Despite playing from a recessed position, he's taken more shots on target than anyone in the league (53).

It is axiomatic in soccer that no player can create offence by himself. Giovinco is the exception that proves that rule.

But to fully appreciate Giovinco's magic, you have to watch him. Everyone else is playing checkers. He's playing three-dimensional chess. He has that special vision – literal and figurative – that allows him to see what's going to happen an instant before anyone else. Then he has the speed and skill to fully exploit that foreknowledge.

I put it to him that it all looks very easy when he does it. I can tell when the statement is only half-translated that he's already offended. He wants to explain all the work that goes into … I cut off the translator.

"No, what I meant to say is that you look like you're working on a different level from everyone else."

He does me the favour of looking at me now.

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"Grazie," he says. Then, "Thank you." Disaster averted.

Giovinco was raised in industrial Turin, the son of a metal worker and a waitress. He has a younger brother who plays professionally in Italy's third division.

Giovinco's parents are from the south – Calabria and Sicily. They went north looking for work. This common migration marks every Italian who makes it as a permanent outsider.

At eight years old, he was spotted playing in a suburban children's league by scouts from Juventus. He was brought into the club's academy.

In Turin, they call Juventus the Vecchia Signora – Old Lady. The nickname is a pun, but the club is mother to all the city's fans.

As just one example of his stubbornness, Giovinco continued to support his employer's bitter rival, AC Milan. He only shifted his allegiance grudgingly.

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"Oh, well. When you're 15 years old at Juve, it's normal to root for them," he explained later. He signed his first professional contract at 17. At that point, he was already training with the senior team.

Despite an abundance of talent, his career at Juventus never fully launched. He was loaned out twice to lesser clubs and cut a sporadic figure on the national team. He was in and out of favour with a series of managers.

Most of this was down to his size. Soccer players are not big men, but they tend to have muscular heft, especially in the lower half. Giovinco is both small (5 foot 4) and wispy (listed at 137 pounds). Judging by the look of him, he may be the only professional athlete in North America who inflates his weight.

We are sitting in a trattoria in tony Yorkville. Giovinco lives a couple of blocks away at the residences of the Four Seasons Hotel. He has arrived straight from practice in a T-shirt and shorts. He has a diamond bracelet on one wrist and a watch the size of a dinner plate on the other. The Italian-speaking wait staff are "Ciao"-ing up a storm.

He makes a great point of stopping to address each person in turn.

"Is everybody eating?" he asks.

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No, you go ahead.

This is a bad breach of table etiquette, but Giovinco doesn't want to insist. He shakes his head sadly.

He has a long discussion with the waiter about lunch. He wants a salad, but it isn't on the menu. He lists off what he'd like in it – chicken, goat cheese and a light dressing. He inhales the first plate in the Italian style – fork and a hunk of bread acting in tandem. Then he orders another. It's twice as big. It's gone just as fast.

He apologizes. "I don't eat like this all the time. I do have salad, but I'm an Italian."

By that, he means that he usually eats real food – pasta, pizza and such. It's charming to meet someone with a hang-up around food that works the opposite way. He's spent his life trying to gain weight.

Asked for his favourite restaurant in the area, he says, "My home."

This is the key allure of Toronto for Giovinco. It's completely different than what he's used to, but allows him to remain the same.

He moved here with his long-time partner, Sharj (it's her eye that you may have seen tattooed photo-realistically on the back of his neck), and their toddler son Jacopo. By all accounts, Giovinco, 28, prefers the comforts of family life to the city's club scene.

This was not the case with Jermain Defoe, the big-money bust who preceded Giovinco. As such, it was a factor in making Giovinco the highest-paid Italian player in the world. Toronto FC hoped it was getting a highly motivated workaholic. In turn, Giovinco was hoping he could finally put his job in its proper perspective.

In Turin, he was hounded – by the press and fans. The fixation was exacerbated by the fact that he was a local product.

"You can't go for a walk with your family. You can't go buy an ice cream. There is too much passion. They're always on you: 'Please, please, please.' Here, it's different," Giovinco says. "They are more respectful. Let's call it 'educated.' They understand. In Italy, it's too much."

When the pressure is more reasonable, he feels a responsibility to be accessible. He recounts a recent chance meeting with a major sports star whose name he'd rather not have printed. Giovinco asked for a picture together. He was rebuffed.

"Not a good person," Giovinco says darkly in English.

Then, back in Italian: "I will take a picture with anyone who wants one. All they have to do is ask. If I don't want to take a picture, there is an easy way to solve that problem – I don't leave my house."

The owner of the restaurant has come over now – a fellow Calabrese. He wants to know if Giovinco wants any hard-to-find favourites. Perhaps some soppressata (cured sausage) or 'nduja (a spicy meat spread)? The owner's mother is going to make it for him, special. Giovinco is aglow.

"I'm in love with this city, the lifestyle," he says.

Is it the soccer or the culture that attracts you most?

"For now, of course, it's more the lifestyle. I hope in the future it will also be the soccer. It [the quality of the North American game] is different. You can't say it's not."

From someone else, you might go ferreting around in that quote for an insult. But not Giovinco. He calls things by their real names and has fully delivered on his high-priced promise. What more could a city want?

Given how well he's playing and the changeable nature of his profession, will he stay if a much bigger European club comes for him? He's on a five-year deal, but traditionally soccer contracts don't mean much if a player is motivated to leave.

"I'm happy to stay. This is a long-term project. But if Manchester City calls you? I don't think it will happen. If they really wanted me, they would've asked me before. That's being realistic. Of course, once something happens, you need to think about it. But I'm very happy here. I don't think I'm going to leave."

It's the sort of non-weaselly commitment that Toronto FC will be just as happy to hear. The team should worry about whether Giovinco is included in Italy's squad at Euro 2016, to be played in France. Exclusion from England's national set-up is what drove Defoe around the bend.

Giovinco has yet to receive any assurances, but Italy's manager Antonio Conte is a long-time admirer. Giovinco calls making that team "very important to me." It would be a profound coup for MLS as a whole if one of its players featured in soccer's most difficult tournament. It's never happened.

Giovinco doesn't seem terribly bothered right now. He's finished eating and is in no hurry to rush off. Jacopo will wake up from his nap in a half hour. They'll spend the afternoon horsing around. Perhaps later they'll all go for a walk. Having been denied the pleasure for so long, he's a great fan of the lazy urban stroll. He'll take a few pictures, but mostly he'll be ignored. As he prefers.

For now, the best soccer player in North America is happy to let soccer sort itself out. He's busy concentrating on living the bella vita, overseas division.

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