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Belated Giovinco recall indicative of Italy's plight

Sebastian Giovinco finally has what he’s been craving for three years.

When Italy manager Roberto Mancini named his squad on Friday for the upcoming friendly against Ukraine and Nations League clash with Poland, the Toronto FC star’s name was included for the first time since October 2015.

“I was surprised, to be honest, but I’ve done a good job here in Toronto and it’s always a pleasure to get called in,” the diminutive star said after the announcement.

That surprise is understandable. In the intervening years since his last cap, Giovinco has arguably reached the summit of his career and begun the descent down the other side.

In October 2015, he was a 28-year-old star reinvigorated by the move from Juventus to Toronto, by the transition from bit-part impact player to leading man, and by the chance to become the pin-up boy for a whole new fan base. In October 2018, he’s a 31-year-old with an ever-expanding history of nagging injury issues coming toward the end of a campaign that’s been his least fruitful – certainly, his least consistently impressive – since his arrival in North America.

He’s netted 12 goals and added seven assists in 25 MLS appearances this season, production way below the standard he set for himself.

Those statistics don’t quite tell the full story, either, as he’s alternated between looking like his old scintillating self and struggling to take games by the scruff of the neck. His inconsistencies may be as much a symptom of TFC’s wider malaise as it is a contributing factor in it. At least, with the Reds teetering on the brink of elimination from the MLS playoff picture, his international call comes at a reasonably low-impact time for both club and player.

Friday’s selection comes almost exactly three years since Giovinco’s last international cap when he played 28 minutes off the bench against Norway. That day, in the Azzurri’s 10th and final Euro 2016 qualifier, he helped inspire a turnaround, creating Alessandro Florenzi’s equalizer before playing a key role in Graziano Pelle’s late winner.

Claudio Villa / Getty Images Sport / Getty

That it has taken another three years for him to even be given a chance is perhaps indicative of several things, not least the lack of recognition and prestige bestowed upon the MLS game and its players by its European counterparts. After that game-changing cameo, it should not have taken nearly so long for the man fondly dubbed the Atomic Ant to get another shot. Perhaps Italy, which has achieved a Euro 2016 quarter-final finish and not much else since Giovinco last played, has suffered as a result of what many MLS consumers term “euro-snobbery”.

However, just as Giovinco’s post-Norway omission needs contextualizing, so does his recall. What cannot be ignored is that he’s undoubtedly benefitting from the Azzurri’s decline. Mancini is attempting to reinvent and redefine the national side after the disgrace of a first missed World Cup qualification in 60 years under Gian Piero Ventura, and he’s doing it without a genuinely world-class striker.

Italy, which has bred generational attacking talents such as Christian Vieri, Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, and Filippo Inzaghi in the not-too-distant past, has named Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne, Simone Zaza, Domenico Berardi, and Patrick Cutrone ahead of Giovinco in attack.

That quintet boasts just 13 international goals in total, and none of the strikers selected in recent months have made a truly compelling case to become the new main man. Had they done so, it’s highly unlikely Giovinco would have been given this opportunity to resurrect his international career.

Claudio Villa / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Furthermore, Giovinco’s return has been granted only after Mancini’s unsuccessful attempt to reintroduce Mario Balotelli. Against Saudi Arabia in May, the Nice striker scored during his first appearance since 2014, but he was dropped last month after underwhelming displays and criticism over his fitness. The controversial 28-year-old has played just three times in France this season, and he was accused of going AWOL earlier in the campaign.

Giovinco’s belated recall is a result of him capitalizing on that dearth of iron-clad options and the failed Balotelli experiment. His recovery in recent weeks has factored in, too.

The decision will continue to be questioned in Italy, particularly with younger, domestic-based options such as Torino’s Andrea Belotti being overlooked.

Giovinco’s record for Italy is nothing to write home about – one goal and three assists in 23 games – and this may be his final hurrah for his country, regardless of how well he plays if called upon.

Certainly, with Italian media and supporters impatient after the plight of recent times, Mancini will need to see the very best edition of 2018 Giovinco if the Toronto star’s surprise inclusion is to have any chance of being repeated.

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