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Wednesday 27 February 2013

First Person View – The End of Frings

    Yesterday, after months of speculation, Toronto FC’s captain Torsten Frings announced his retirement after a glittering eighteen-year career in the game.

    Such occasions are always bittersweet; time to celebrate the good, lament the loss, and look to the future.

    For Torsten, it begins a second act to his career in the game; for the club it was the turning of yet another unfinished page. It would be grandiose to proclaim it the end of an era, but in many ways, it was.

    Frings was the first – and thus far only – truly high-profile player to ever grace the club. Sure, there have been some big names, names that are held close to the heart of TFC fans, but Frings was a name that resonated around the world.

    Upon his arrival I made a friend in Brazil, who had followed the German’s career and was eager to watch this final phase in the footballing wilderness – at least when compared to the mainstream of the world’s game - that is Toronto and MLS.

    His contributions on the pitch were severely hampered during his sub-two-year spell. Injuries, both his own and to those around him, the failings of the team that necessitated his role as a stop-gap centre-back and a diminishing reserve of pace in the hustle and bustle of MLS midfields meant fans never saw the best of what the German was capable.

    Recalling some of his finer moments, the hammer-blow of a free kick in Montreal comes first to mind.

    2012 was a horrible season.

    There were very few genuine moments of joy. But standing there with a handful of Toronto fans, solidly the worst team in the league barely midway through the season, with the Montreal fans in their shiny new stadium acting all smug, only for Torsten to smash that hit past Donovan Ricketts and begin a 0-3 route of the old Lower Canada rivals and quiet the overly-confident crowd was magical.

    Ricketts is a sizeable keeper, and to smack a ball so furiously that despite flying within his formidable wing-span, he could only wave helplessly at it, was spectacular.

    That blast, more power than precision, contained within it a modicum of joyful release, for Frings as much as for the fans.

    The next, watching the decorated international engage the crowd after hoisting the Voyageur’s Cup, awarded to the winner’s of Canada’s domestic competition, a simple four-team tournament.

    To say it was one of the more glorious triumphs of his career would be ludicrous, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he at least understood well what it meant to the fans and found a certain amount of pride in leading the club, despite all its shortcomings, to a fourth-straight title against stronger than ever competition.

    Perhaps that is the thing that was most ingratiating about his time in Toronto; that he was fully aware of what he was getting into, coming to a club in need of an identity.

    He didn’t feel the need to act the superstar he undoubtedly was; he was humble in how he approached this new challenge. And that ability to see eye-to-eye with the common folk set him apart.

    He was soft-spoken; too shy – if that’s the right word, perhaps reserved would be more apt – to even attempt to converse in English with the media for months, despite being much better at it than he let on, lest he risk conveying the wrong message.

    Quiet but impactful; that is how he will be remembered.

    He tolerated, even excelled at the mundane promotional duties the club requested of him – that Union Station stunt, where blinkered commuters walked by the most world famous athlete in the city with a ball at his feet looking for somebody to have a kick about for nearly an hour before finally a young man noticed, was embarrassing; but Torsten endured - even enjoyed - it with a smile on his face.

    He embraced both his celebrity and his anonymity, one of the perks for big stars seeking a more normal life. He loved attending all the usual cabal of North American sports, often seen in attendance at baseball games in particular, having added a Blue Jays cap his unmistakable wardrobe.

    Those with a more philosophical bent on life – or those who have read Philippe Auclair’s ‘Cantona’, will understand that an athletes’ fate entails a double-death.

    It is a difficult time when that which has always been must be replaced. Many a strong figure has broken down when the time came to hang up their instrument of choice.

    Interpretation of the emotion at the press conference oscillates, from disappointed to resolute. Most likely it was some combination of the two. 

    Frings seems like a man prepared for this eventuality, with adequate measures of Teutonic rationality and foresight, and only a lingering sadness; perhaps not even for himself, but as the true club man that he is, for the side mired in turnover that he must now leave behind.

    It would be remiss to not mention that this is not the first time a legend has stepped away from the club for situational, rather than concrete reasons.

    That is one of the rubs of MLS, that salary restriction and roster spots mean that sometimes players are pushed for the good of the club. One never wants to see a career ended by circumstance, opposed to free will.

    Danny Dichio hung up his boots midseason, as did Jim Brennan.

    But perhaps it was that same steely demeanour that saw him endure such a long and successful career, that kept him fighting long after his body had decided the time had passed.

    Like Dichio and Brennan, all will be assured to hear that his relationship with the club will outlast his time on the field, of course, how that link plays out remains to be seen.

    Football, or soccer if you prefer, is as much a game of relationships as it is of anything else. As true a form of a ‘team game’ as one is likely to find; partnerships on the pitch give way to those off it.

    It never hurts to have friends, and though he may be removed from the day-to-day, those contacts can come in handy.

    So just what does the future hold, with this necessary milestone out of the way?

    Torsten appears destined to return to Germany, most likely to Werder Bremen the club where he cut his teeth and rose to prominence, in some sort of coaching role and no one would be surprised if one day he holds the top job.

    Undoubtedly his time in Toronto was not what any party involved had envisaged, but seldom do hopes live up to reality.

    In the furiously revolving door of TFC players, Frings’ numbers were not remarkable; he was not prolific, nor did the club right the wrongs that have plagued it during its existence.

    But those still enamoured with this patchwork club will always have a special place in their hearts for the German midfielder, who graced them oh so briefly and far too irregularly.

    The story of the first six years of TFC has many pages - seven years in the average club should never contain as much intrigue and overhaul as these opening chapters in Toronto do.

    In the end, though Frings was never the hero many hoped he would be, he will not be the mere footnote that numbers would suggest; hopefully, as is often the way, his departure can be the start of something new – with an end, comes a beginning.

    If the club can maintain one ounce of the dignity, professionalism, and determination that he brought with him at this new beginning, his tenure will have been a success.

    One final immediate hope for the relationship: that come March 10th 9th when Toronto FC opens their home season at the SkyDome (Rogers Centre, for the younger or corporate crowd) Frings is on hand so the beleaguered fans can extend the appreciation and affection that they feel for their former captain, at the site of one of the few remarkable triumphs of his tenure, the CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinal tie against the Los Angeles Galaxy witnessed by nearly fifty-thousand fans a few days past the one-year anniversary of the event.

    Thanks for everything Torsten, you will be remembered fondly, and best of luck in the future.

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