Though Toronto enjoys a long sports history, the list of athletes who've left the city and are now subject to constant ridicule upon their return is quite short. Vince Carter shot to the top of that list in 2005. Phil Kessel's return to Toronto on Halloween could go either way.
Perhaps because of the one-year duration of his stay, Jermain Defoe's name doesn't often come to mind. But among Toronto FC's fan base, his name draws fiery contempt.
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Tasked in part with turning around a beleaguered franchise after inking a gigantic contract, his enthusiasm for the club seemed to deplete after a fantastic start. He blamed injuries for the amount of games he missed but rumours of his unhappiness with life in Canada persisted. Defoe wanted out less than a year into his tenure, and TFC granted him his wish. His 11 regular-season goals were moot without the kind of heart and grit that is the most valued currency among Toronto sports fans.
He was gone as soon as he arrived, but the memory of the 32-year old still burns within the fan base, as evidenced by his reception during his first return to Toronto on Wednesday night. Defoe was transferred to Sunderland in January and scored twice in a 2-1 victory over Toronto FC in a friendly.
But the boo birds emerged when Defoe's name was announced pregame.
"That's part and parcel of football these days," said Defoe. "Sometimes you move on and I understand that there's fans that might not be happy. But at the same time I'll always appreciate the fans."
And then those very fans disappeared.
The reception paled in comparison to the one Carter garnered when he returned. In fact, at kick-off on a picturesque evening, there were giant pockets of seats in the lower portion of BMO Field empty. Total attendance was at 14,025—most notably, the oft-rowdy south end was nearly vacant.
Until Defoe tied the score at one apiece with a deflection in the 66th minute, he'd hardly been a factor. It wasn't a pretty goal, but it was salt on an open wound despite the meaning of this game being purely symbolic, with utterly no effect on final standings.
"Preseason is about getting your fitness but at the same time you want to be sharp, you want to score goals and you want to win games," Defoe said.
So that's what he did. He grabbed his second of the game four minutes later with an easy tap-in into an open net.
Yes, he wanted to remind Toronto who he was. The booing then returned.
Given the striker's tendency to float like a ghost through the penalty area and rely on his first touch, it wasn't much of an anger-fuelled welcome back. He was noticeably absent for large stretches of the first half and looked dismayed when he didn't get the service he desired from his teammates.
Presumably to maintain his team's health, TFC head coach Greg Vanney made eight substitutions in the 32nd minute, including Sebastian Giovinco. Giovinco's remarkable volley late in the first half sailed over the bar and you got the sense he could've matched Defoe's highlights had he been left on. It was only after these substitutions that Defoe started to find space.
"The first half they looked really sharp," Defoe said. "They moved the ball well. And in the second half it was nice to see some of the younger players who I saw a little bit of."
All smiles after denying TFC supporters the opportunity for one final good riddance, Defoe was asked if he had a message for those fans. With the cocksure attitude that didn't help his case in Toronto, he meagerly acknowledged the lack of communication after his departure from the club earlier this year.
"Everything happened so quick. When I left the club I was based in London so I didn't have time to say bye to anyone," he said.
Perhaps this was the reception Defoe deserved. The fact that the most vocal of TFC supporters wouldn't bother showing up speaks volumes about the level of emotion he truly evokes. With a lifeless stadium to welcome his return, it was as if he wasn't worth the price of a ticket.
The hype surrounding TFC has been quieter this season compared to 2014. When Defoe was unveiled many believed Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment boss Tim Leiweke was vaulting the team to the upper echelon of the league in one fell swoop. There was a sense of flash that accompanied the signing, helped largely by the constant advertisements that followed Defoe.
Defoe called MLS one of the best leagues in the world and said he always tries to watch TFC games, even if he does catch them a bit late.
The club he's watched is a much different one since his departure.
Now, with TFC playing a much more consistent brand of soccer that has the club in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with 14 games remaining in the regular season, the team seems to have put soccer first and glamour second. The hollow reception Defoe received Wednesday means TFC fans haven't just moved on from him, but also everything his signing represented.