Paul Attfield: Forget the cynics, MLS can provide launchpad for Jermain Defoe to get to Brazil
Save for a torn Achilles tendon, David Beckham would have taken part in the World Cup in South Africa
Friday 17 January 2014
The obituaries have been written, the eulogies have been heard. When Jermain Defoe officially kisses the Premier League goodbye on 28 February he will head west in search of untold wealth and new frontiers. But it comes at a cost, as he is also condemning himself to high-salaried servitude in a footballing backwater, never to be heard from again, with Roy Hodgson unlikely to send out a search party.
Or so some would have you believe. Without wanting to offend any of the so-called "Eurosnobs", as a Canadian tabloid labelled one English football writer, Defoe's transfer to Major League Soccer's Toronto FC isn't so much a "dead end" as a new chapter, and it certainly shouldn't prove to be the final nail in his World Cup coffin.
Naturally, there are plenty of riches involved – no footballer with half a brain is going to uproot his family and move continents for less than eight figures these days – but this isn't Samuel Eto'o joining Anzhi Makhachkala and there won't be any 2,500-mile round-trip flights just to play home games. And for those who think that money trumped all, Defoe reportedly turned down a more lucrative offer to play in Qatar.
Defoe is joining a club looking finally to turn the page on seven years of underperforming players, farcical decisions and executive abuse. Spending more than $100m (£61m) in transfer fees and salaries for the Tottenham striker and the Roma midfielder Michael Bradley, who passed up the chance to join his American team-mate Jozy Altidore at Sunderland, has a way of doing that. And for those who think throwing open the vault door is an unethical way to reverse years of ineptitude and plot a future course for success, please instruct Manchester City to cease and desist immediately.
Owned by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, a company valued at $2.25bn (£1.37bn) by Forbes magazine last year, Toronto spent $19m on their new training facility two years ago – Canadian-born Junior Hoilett described it as better than anything QPR have while training there last summer. They are also poised to drop another $90m on redeveloping their stadium, BMO Field, to accommodate up to 40,000 in a league that is eighth in the world, and ahead of the Championship, in average attendance.
Heading the charge is MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke, described by former US international and Los Angeles Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas as "one of the best salesman I've ever met". There's no disgrace in saying yes to Leiweke; David Beckham did it seven years ago while the American executive was running LA Galaxy and that hardly called time on his England career. Save for a torn Achilles tendon in 2010 on loan at Milan, Beckham would have taken part in the World Cup in South Africa.
Beckham was also Leiweke's point man when it came to selling Defoe on the virtues of North American football. While he wasn't alone on the MLS cheerleading squad – Canadian rapper Drake and Defoe's former Spurs team-mates Robbie Keane and Brad Friedel also made persuasive arguments – Beckham can best relate to the decision Defoe made. It's not as if the Republic of Ireland were going to stop picking their captain just because Keane was sold to the Galaxy.
Like Beckham before him, Defoe's record speaks for itself – "I'd like to think the England manager and everyone in England knows what I can do," he said last Monday. And given the 24-hour news cycle that is available, even if Hodgson decides not to make the transatlantic trek, it's not as if Defoe will be out of sight, out of mind.
But, at 31, and struggling for regular playing time at Spurs, Defoe, like Thierry Henry, Beckham and Keane before him, has been faced with his footballing mortality. After 15 years in England, Defoe has no silverware to show for it, and while an MLS Cup is never going to satiate connoisseurs in the same way that a Champions League or league title will, Spurs have only had one campaign in the former and have gone 53 years without winning the latter.
But if the hunger to succeed is still there, Defoe can take heart in that he's arrived in a city crying out for a winner. As an ice hockey mecca, Toronto has long marched to the beat of the NHL's Maple Leafs, also owned by MLSE, but their trophy drought has lasted since 1967. The lacklustre Raptors have long represented basketball's hinterland as far as top NBA stars are concerned, and though baseball's Blue Jays were the bookies' favourites heading into last season after an expensive makeover, they crashed and burned and the prospects of a turnaround appear bleak.
Defoe has also made the move for reasons that extend beyond the pitch. During his time with Toronto the German international Torsten Frings always raved about the fact that he could walk around the city unnoticed, a blessing when raising a young family such as the one Defoe has. And Newcastle United's assistant coach John Carver, TFC's head coach in 2008-09, returns to Toronto every summer and still admits that quitting the club was one of his biggest regrets in football, and something he may revisit.
MLS isn't about to be placed on the same pedestal as the Premier League, of course, but it is a growing entity and having players such as Defoe and others choosing to quit Europe's biggest leagues and continue their careers in North America is only going to help, whether the England manager agrees or not.
Paul Attfield is a sports reporter for Toronto's 'Globe and Mail'
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