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From Napoli to Toronto: Breaking down Lorenzo Insigne’s MLS switch

With Lorenzo Insigne now set to join MLS side Toronto FC, Jyotirmoy Halder looks at the situation of the Italian and breaks down the unexpected move from the Napoli hero.

The football sphere was normal before the intervention of the year 2021. Yes, the postponement of matches due to the long-running COVID-19 pandemic was still a prominent issue as matches and events were getting delayed here and there, and games were being played behind closed doors. Yet, it was normal. 

 

Had the year 2021 never arrived, we would have surely escaped the discouraging experience of Christan Eriksen collapsing on the pitch while representing his beloved country Denmark in the rescheduled European Championship, Lionel Messi would not have bid a tearful adios to his devotees at Barcelona and Sergio Aguero, of all the prestigious names out there, would have continued to add more pages to his illustrious and storied career.

 

And finally, when it feels that the globe of football and its inhabitants have seen and endured enough this year, the news of Lorenzo Insigne’s departure hit the Italian media, leaving not only the Napoli enthusiasts but also everyone holding even a little knowledge of the situation in utter disbelief.

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There were reports already suggesting that the club captain would leave Napoli for free in the next summer transfer window, with the individual’s contract expiring in June 2022. But the prospect of him leaving the shadow of elite European football never crossed the minds of hundreds and thousands of people watching him play for the Azzurri for a long time. And now, when it eventually crossed, it somewhat shook their world upside down.

 

At the age of 15, Insigne held the Napoli shirt for the time officially, signing for Napoli’s youth team back in 2006. On the road, there were loan spells at Cavese, Foggia, and Pescara, and each of those stints was indeed successful. But a perfect Lorenzo Insigne was the one capable of wrenching the opposition defences while donning the sacred creed of Naples.

 

In Italy, they hold a one-club man in high esteem. Having followed that principle, Francesco Totti and Paulo Maldini became legends at their respective clubs. Insigne had been considered one such single-club man until this very day when reports of him signing a pre-contract with the Major League Soccer side Toronto FC stirred up a sense of scepticism among his followers. 

 

It has been reported via multiple sources that Insigne has agreed on terms to join Toronto FC in the summer of 2022. Although there has been no official confirmation yet from the Italian outfit, the reports indicate that it could be a five-year deal ensuring €11.5 million per season in salaries with another €4.5 million in various performance-related bonuses for the 30-year-old attacker. If not anything, the developing situation has left many doubts and queries behind.



Have Napoli had done everything to keep hold of the star?

 

It has been too long since the Italian media last reported his entourage’s intention to find an agreement between the player and the club over a contract renewal. And when that agreement seemed distant, the likelihood of Insigne parting ways with Napoli at the end of his current deal at Naples became obvious. Now the question emerges: have Napoli done enough? 

 

Speaking to the media last November, Vincenzo Piascante, Insigne’s agent, tried to persuade the Napoli president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, by saying, “Napoli have offered not much more than half of what he earns today though, of course, we are still staying calm. It goes without saying that Lorenzo was blown away.”

 

“Everyone plays their game, but the club must make a step up. Renewal amounts are rising. Just look at the amounts offered for those who signed new contracts before Insigne,” he revealed.

 

De Laurentiis, infamous for his uncompromising attitude, had offered €3.5 million to Insigne in his new contract — a notable cut on his current €4.5 million per year — and started concocting other plans in his mind.  

 

“I let others democratically decide what is the best choice for their lives. If Insigne wants to stay, we are here to welcome him with open arms. Instead, if he thinks his journey in Naples is over, we’ll deal with it and accept his decision,” said the club president. 

 

The words were an absolute testament to Napoli’s negligence throughout this saga. The club has somewhat reflected a gloomy feeling of indistinctness despite learning how loyal Insigne has been to the team and how integral he has been in the project over the years.

 

If stats, provided by Transfermarkt, are believed to be true, Insigne is one goal away from touching Diego Maradona and two goals away from surpassing him to become Napoli’s third all-time top goalscorer. From 415 games in all competitions, the diminutive right-footer has plundered 114 goals so far. He is not only a superstar in Italy but also one of those few stars who represent Italian football globally these days. And after a successful European Championship where Italy lifted the title (with Insigne netting two goals from six matches) last summer, Insigne should’ve got what he deserved — a meaningful pay rise in his new contract at Napoli. 

 

Instead, what he got was lower than the sum he is earning in his existing contract. But there lies a contradictory perspective from De Laurentiis’ part. Napoli have been showing interest in tying Insigne to a new contract for a long time. Therefore, they presented a new offer on the player’s table. And it has been there since, unsigned. Now, amid the concerns of the pandemic which has unstabled the club’s finances to a great extent, De Laurentiis might feel that the club would survive through these troubled times only if the players lower their salaries. 

 

Being the captain and a local hero, Insigne might thus have been perceived as leverage to inspire the whole team to lower their demands. Turning 31 by the time he leaves Napoli, Insigne may not indeed have the leeway or the energy to jump into another lengthy negotiation. 

 

“He [De Laurentiis] is trying to pass Lorenzo off as someone who is asking for the world,” said Insigne’s agent in the same interview as above. To the club president, meeting Insigne’s demands might be akin to handing over the world to the gifted superstar. Instead, he chose to back off and watch the show from afar.

 

What might be Insigne’s motivation behind leaving the European limelight?

 

Over the last few decades, there have been various instances of famed players leaving Europe and subsequently joining clubs on different continents. If the idea of playing for a childhood club is kept aside, the overall package involving more money has worked as the principal impetus in the majority of cases. 

 

A few years back, the Chinese Super League (CSL) nearly underwent and brought about a revolution, with players such as Hulk, Oscar, Paulinho, Yannick Carrasco, and various leading names of football moving to China. All these moves involved a monumental amount of cash. While money has always played a big factor in deciding the fate of a player (somewhat because of their avaricious agents), some have left Europe to avoid playing against their former employers before hanging their boots. For instance, there have been players such as Daniele De Rossi, Barcelona’s Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

 

Now, given Insigne’s circumstances, it is difficult to understand what could be his motivation. 30, Insigne is at the peak of his game. He is considered a threat in the eyes of every opposing manager. If he desires to leave Napoli for free next summer and not to play for an Italian side once again, he would surely get a satisfactory offer to represent another club in England or maybe in Spain. But then again, there is always a chance to face Napoli on a European night. And if he joins a club that doesn’t play much European football, he would surely not get the financial package that, as per the reports, is currently being offered to him by the Canadian outfit. 

 

In the offer proposed by Toronto, Insigne gets €11.5 million per season. But that is the gross amount which includes different taxes. If the tax structure of Canada is taken into consideration, it is said that he would earn around €5.7 million which is not much of an increment but still better than what has been presented by the Napoli president. We might have to wait until Insigne publishes his autobiography and discloses the reasons for what is deemed to be an absurd decision of moving to the MLS.

 

Why Toronto FC?

 

Unless you are not aware of the football (or should I say “soccer”) league system in the United States, Toronto FC are a franchise that have been playing football in Major League Soccer since their addition as the first Canadian franchise in 2007. They are currently one of the three Canadian franchises representing the nation in the MLS. 

Playing in the Eastern Conference, Toronto have garnered very little success in their brief history. In 2017, they won their only MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield. They have dominated the Canadian Championship, becoming seven-time champions of the respective competition. But since winning it last in 2018, luck has not shone for Toronto in that tournament as well.

 

In terms of top players, the club has Alejandro Pozuelo, who is also their club-record signing. Other than Spaniard, there is Michael Bradley, who is a celebrated US men’s international and club captain. 

 

Last season, Toronto finished second-last in their 14-team points table in Eastern Conference, failing to qualify for the play-offs. Furthermore, having faced failure in the CONCACAF Champions League over the years, the management of Toronto FC has finally started becoming serious about success on the field, it is believed.

 

As such, they look to spend big and make noteworthy arrivals to establish their supremacy in the league.

 

Reports of Toronto targeting the signatures of Torino striker Andrea Belotti have not ignored the eyes of the rumour mill ahead of this winter transfer window. Hence, Insigne is understandably seen as a fundamental part of the project getting designed to make Toronto a better footballing side in the continent. 

 

There is a traditional proverb that reads, “Go where you are appreciated, not where you are tolerated.” Considering the magnitude of appreciation proposed by Toronto, it might be hard for the 30-year-old to refuse their offer.

 

What could be the possible impacts of the supposed move on Insigne’s career?

 

It is not the first time and won’t be the last time that a player makes his move to the MLS and continues his professional football there. David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Andrea Pirlo, Kaka and many other world-beaters have fared well in the foreign land before. But the only distinction between them and Insigne is that they left knowing that it would be their last chance at the professional level. 

 

Some, of course, reinvented their careers there as Ibrahimovic, being an exception, has now returned to play European football for a top Italian club in AC Milan. But a player of Insigne’s ilk often goes to MLS with an intention to have the last ride in professional football before saying goodbye. Whether Insigne, at the age of 30, believes the same is extremely dubious.

 

The situation with Insigne is similar to that of Sebastian Giovinco. Leaving Juventus in his prime, Giovinco joined Toronto and spent four seasons there between 2015 and 2019. He racked up 83 goals for Toronto from 142 games, becoming the record goalscorer in the club’s history. But all the success came in an exchange for something more meaningful.

 

“On a professional level, you have to consider disappearing from the radar. I lost the national team, I lost visibility. If you are willing to give up on these things, it [moving to MLS] is an experience that I recommend to everyone,” admitted Giovinco in his latest interview with Corriere dello Sport.

 

Under Roberto Mancini, Lorenzo Insigne remains a cog in Italy’s international side. But if the switch to Toronto goes through, Insigne is thought to be closer to losing his international status than renewing it. In the same tone, Giovinco bemoaned, “I can say that when I arrived in 2015 I was promised seas and mountains that in reality weren’t there… It went well, but it didn’t help me much.”

By Jyotirmoy Halder

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