Veteran Victor Vazquez looks to help bring Toronto FC back to its glory years

Victor Vazquez was cheering for his native Spain at the recent World Cup but he still celebrated Argentina's tournament win.

Vazquez, starting his second go-round with Toronto FC, and Argentine captain Lionel Messi go back a long way — to the celebrated FC Barcelona youth academy where the two were young guns on the Spanish powerhouse's Class of '87 side.

While a knee injury eventually derailed Vazquez's first-team career with Barca, Messi's star never stopped climbing. Now with Paris Saint-Germain, the Argentine attacker capped his career by hoisting the World Cup in Qatar.

"I knew it was his last chance to win a World Cup," Vazquez said Tuesday from San Diego where TFC is holding the first portion of its training camp. "I'm super-happy and so glad for him … Finally he achieved the big one, which I think is the most important one as a football player.

"Now, for sure, no one can say that Messi is not the best player in the world."

Vazquez, who turns 36 on Jan. 20, was 11 when he joined La Masia, Barca's youth academy. The Class of '87 youth side was a special one with Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fabregas and Messi, who is five months younger than Vazquez, among its ranks.

Vazquez says while the Class of '87 remains in touch, via a WhatsApp chat group, it is mindful of the demands on Messi.

"Messi has a really busy life. We don't want to disturb him," said Vazquez.

He also keeps up with Messi with the occasional Instagram exchange.

"We were so close when we were young. It's always good to have a few chats during the year with him," said Vazquez.

Vazquez's nine-year-old son, who lives with his mother in Barcelona, is actually named Leo. But Vazquez said he and his ex-wife Andrea just liked the name.

Back in the TFC fold after spending the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy following stints in Qatar and Belgium, Vazquez is renewing a few more acquaintances in camp in California although the turnover in Toronto has been severe in recent years.

The star attacking midfielder, a former Belgian Professional Footballer of the Year during his post-Barca stint with Club Brugge, had 18 goals and 28 assists in 65 appearances across all competitions for Toronto in 2017 and '18.

A key cog in the attack, he scored the insurance goal in Toronto's 2-0 MLS Cup final win over Seattle in 2017 when TFC also won the Supporters’ Shield and the Canadian Championship. He was named to the MLS Best XI after scoring eight goals and adding 16 assists during regular season play that year.

Vazquez showed he can unlock a defence with his vision and pinpoint passing. He can also score.

"Victor makes you look better so it's nice to have him on the field," midfielder Jonathan Osorio said in July 2018. "His brain ticks a little bit faster than the normal brain, especially on the pitch. It's amazing to watch."

In January 2019, Vazquez left for Qatar where he played first for Al-Arabi Sports Club and then Umm Salal Sport Club, whose practice facility served as Canada's training base at the World Cup.

While Vazquez enjoyed living in Doha, the football left something to be desired.

"It was difficult to adapt to the soccer there because it was totally different. They are still growing a lot (as a soccer country) as we saw in the World Cup," he said. "But in the end it was a great experience … Every experience in my career I always look at it in a positive way."

He then got a call from Belgium's K.A.S. Eupen offering him a new challenge. After a few months, MLS beckoned again and he was reunited with former Toronto coach Greg Vanney at the Los Angeles Galaxy in March 2021.

Vazquez had five goals and 11 assists in 57 appearances with the Galaxy in all competitions.

In November, the Galaxy opted not to exercise the 2023 option on Vazquez's contract. Eight days later, Toronto selected him in Stage 2 of the MLS re-entry draft.

Vazquez hopes to return TFC to its glory years after the club missed the playoffs the last two seasons with a combined 15-30-27 record.

"I want to play as many years as possible," he said. "I still want to compete at a high level. That's why I came to Toronto again. Because I know in Toronto I have amazing memories. I also want to bring Toronto back to where it belongs. I always say that Toronto deserves to be again, in the right spot, in the playoffs."

Vazquez earned US$1.5 million in 2018, fourth on the TFC payroll behind Sebastian Giovinco, captain Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. He made a bargain US$440,000 each of the last two seasons with the Galaxy.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2023

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press