How appropriate, El Topolino (Little Mouse, on the right) takes on Mickey Mouse. (Photo courtesy of Carlos Metidieri)
By Michael Lewis
TORONTO — They might be small in stature, but they’re big in impact.
In soccer, bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes that adage is spot on — as big things do come from small packages and can cause some big headaches for opposing players.
Take, for instance, the case of Sebastian Giovinco and Carlos Metidieri.
They’re also known as the Atomic Ant and El Topolino, respectively. Those were quite appropriate nicknames. Metidieri’s comes from Italian and means Little Mouse, although he played like a mighty one.
They’re both all of 5-4, yet they have caused many a defender and goalkeeper a sleepless night or two with their dominating performances on the field, especially in front of the net.
Despite playing decades apart these two astounding players bring similar credentials to the table.
Giovinco, an Italian international, is Toronto FC’s marksmen who will play against Seattle Sounders FC in the MLS Cup at BMO Field Saturday night. He enjoyed a golden season in 2015, winning the Major League Soccer Golden Boot (22 goals) and Golden Ball. He added 17 goals in 2016 and 16 this season.
Metidieri, a Brazilian who played for Toronto Italia for four years in the sixties, did his MLS counterpart one better. He is the only player in North American Soccer League history who won back-to-back scoring championships as a holy terror with the Rochester Lancers in 1970 and 1971.
Since both players have a common thread in playing in Toronto and that the MLS final is in this fair city Saturday, yours truly figured he would ask someone who lives in this great Ontario city who is in the most appropriate position to comment on both stars — Dick Howard.
Howard, a member of the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame after a career as an international goalkeeper and with the Toronto Metros, knows both players quite well. He played with and against Metidieri back in the day and was a TV analyst for Toronto FC games. He has watched Giovinco the past three years.
“They were such explosive players,” Howard said. “They did things with the ball you could not anticipate.”
Howard researched and put together a list of attributes for both players. One thing that stood out was their age. Giovinco is 30 and Metidieri did most of his damage with the Lancers at the ages of 28 and 29.
Giovinco is 5-4 and 144 lbs. Metidieri, according to Howard’s research, was listed at different heights. When he played with the Los Angeles Wolves in 1968, Metidieri was 5-6 and 150 lbs. When he performed with the old Boston Minutemen (NASL) in 1974, he was 5-4. No doubt the Wolves were trying to make Metidieri bigger than what he really was. NBA teams have been known to add some inches to players’ heights on their official rosters to make them seem more imposing.
Ah, it doesn’t matter.
Howard said there “was nothing to look at heading or tackling” for both players.
“But Carlos I remember has explosive speed the first couple of yards,” he said. “He did the rainbows, where he flicked the ball over his head while he was approaching the defender. He would run around the defender and collect the ball on the rainbow.
“He was a little more selective on shots. The Atomic Ant if you look at his statistics, you see many shots. The adage is that you score one goal after 10 shots is what we say in analysis terms. Carlos didn’t do that. Very much so the opportunists with regards to balls coming back off the crossbar off the goalkeeper, tucking them away. He always seemed to have that sniffing.”
As in a nose for the goal.
“Sebastian Giovinco, the same thing. He’s tremendous, close control and his 1 v 1 skills put him on a par with Carlos. Where I see more effective the past two seasons, his free kicks have been outstanding and the number of shots he takes in a game. Bottom line is two outstanding players.”
Of course, Howard had the unique distinction of playing against Metidieri in practice and when they were rivals across Lake Ontario. Both were members of the 1979 North American Soccer League team in Rochester.
“Carlos in training, so much skill and taking people on,” he said. “As a goalkeeper, you always had to watch him because he would not want to blast the ball past you. He wanted to pass it past you or put it through your legs if he was balanced. The Atomic Ant, he’s always shooting. You had to be on your feet all the time. Carlos wouldn’t take as many shots. It was still a chance because he could do things that you could not really anticipate.”
Howard recalled that happened in practice and in games. After he was dealt by the Lancers to the Metros, he backstopped Toronto when the teams met in their season opener at Silver Stadium, the old home the Rochester Red Wings baseball team in 1971.
“I think Carlos beat me at the near post,” he said “I’ve got a photo of that. It was something that I should never do but i was cheating a bit. He knew from past experience I was going to do trying to over anticipate.”
Metidieri, now 74, is retired and living in Gilbert, Ariz. When he isn’t with his family or watching the beautiful game on TV, he is volunteering as a cook at his local American Legion Hall.
“Most of the things with short people is they compensate not being tall by being faster,” he said by telephone. “We’re very quick. We can spring over those big guys, go around those big guys easily than people your own size. People your own size makes it to play hard against. When you’re short, you’re not going to win high balls but on the ground, you’re going to kick their butt.”
El Topolino said during the conversation he was looking a picture on the wall of his home when he played against Willie Evans, a 6-1, 175-lb. defender who starred for the Atlanta Chiefs, Washington Darts and Miami Toros.
“That guy was huge, but couldn’t catch up to me,” Metidieri said. “He could punch me.”
“Pele wasn’t much taller than I was. Maradona, i think they were 5-6, I think. 5-4. I had my cousin, [Gilson] who was unbelievable, but he never made his name here.”
Gilson played in the American Soccer League.
Pele was listed at 5-8 and Maradona at 5-5.
When he was asked to describe himself as a player, Metidieri didn’t hesitate.
“The best,” he said before laughing. “I am just joking.”
Then he got serious. During his prime years with the Lancers, Metidieri worked in the meat department of Star Market during the day before attending practice in the afternoon and then playing with the team on the weekends.
“I used to work out, train hard,” he said. “When I went to the game I didn’t think what are you going to do with the money you’re going to make. You think you’re going to win the game. You think of playing with your friends. After the game, you go out and have fun. There was more love for the game than money-wise.”
Metidieri’s father-in-law is a big fan of Giovinco.
“I used to watch him when he played on the national team, but here we don’t catch MLS games around here,” Metidieri said about live games. “I see him once in a while when they play the Red Bulls and NYC FC.”
At his greatest heights, El Topolino earned $12,000 a year playing soccer, which is well below the MLS poverty level today. In case you were wondering, the Atomic Ant earned a base salary of $5.6 million and a guaranteed pay day of $7,115,555.67 for 2016.
“I never made the money, but I’ll tell you a lot of people chanted my name, hit me on the back and said, ‘Great game’ and stuff like that,” Metidieri said. “That was worth a lot of money. After the game, “What a game, what a goal!’ That was a lot of money.”
Well, because Metidieri and Giovinco have the reputations as money players.
“When the ball comes to them, there’s a buzz in the crowd,” Howard said. “There was a buzz when Carlos did it at Aquinas Stadium [in Rochester]. The crowd knew something was going to happen. He made things happen. He’s exciting to watch. He’s a showman.
“The same thing with Sebastian Giovinco. There’s a buzz from the south stand fans because they knew something is going to happen and it would get them cheering. We need players like that, the Michael Jordans of basketball fame, Wayne Gretzky in hockey. When the ball came to them, or the puck in the case of Gretzky, there was an anticipation of what’s going to happen with El Topolino, the Atomic Ant.
“That will happen in the game on Saturday. The ball will come to him in the penalty area and the defenders are going to have to watch it. If they foul him there’ll be a free kick and he’s deadly on free kicks. He’s scored some fabulous goals. That’s why we need players like that, the Lionel Messi’s of North American soccer so to speak. Small players, but big hearts. Certainly entertainers.”