Original Image Credits: Davy Allan, London Hearts & Singapore Premier League
At one point in time, it appeared that Jonathan Toto was destined for footballing greatness. He played alongside Miralem Pjanić and Kalidou Koulibaly in the FC Metz Academy, but his career took on a different trajectory, partly due to the roles played by his agents. He was a journeyman forward whose brief professional career saw him playing in France, Cameroon, Italy, Scotland, Singapore, and Greece.
I remember Jonathan Toto well during his time in Singapore. Part of the same Étoile FC team as Sirina Camara in 2011, he moved to Courts Young Lions together with Camara in 2012. However, while Camara went on to spend an additional 6 years in Singapore, Toto left for Greece where he only played a single season for second division side, Doxa Dramas. After that, I assumed he decided to hang up his boots, not long after his 23rd birthday, because he vanished from the footballing world altogether. He was even untraceable on social media because he deleted his social media applications after quitting football.
If luck would have it, I managed to track down Toto after he reposted the Camara interview on his Instagram Story. One thing led to another, and I managed to interview the former S.League forward to unravel his footballing story—what a story it was.
Beginnings in France and Italy
Born in Paris to parents of Cameroonian descent, Toto went to Africa shortly after his first birthday. He would remain in Africa for the next 12 years and when he was around 13 years old, he returned to Paris. However, it was only when he was 14 years old did Toto pursue football seriously. Up to that point, Toto focused his time and efforts in track and field because he was a speedy runner. Football was a hobby, and he caught the fixtures of his boyhood club Paris Saint-Germain on the television. However, Toto’s father, who was immensely passionate about football, had aspirations that his son would become a professional footballer. After a failed trial with AJ Auxerre, Toto managed to impress in trials for FC Metz, and his footballing journey properly began. At FC Metz, Toto progressed through the various youth levels and played alongside current European stalwarts Miralem Pjanić and Kalidou Koulibaly, something he remembers fondly.
“When we were young we [Pjanić and I] were still speaking with each other after I left Metz, even after he [signed for] Lyon. I saw him playing with the likes of Juninho. After a while, we just drifted a part because he was concentrating on his career and I was concentrating on mine. But, he became a real superstar.”
After reaching the Under-16 level, the forward would leave for SM Caen, but he only played a single season there because he was causing too much trouble for the club. As a hyperactive kid, he was “always moving, playing, and joking around.” So he only lasted a year before moving to Italy.
“I had an agent who sent me to a Serie C club. I was in the Under-17 team of FC Castelnuovo and I spent two years there and then I left to join Legnano. After Legnano, I had some issue with my family and my [agent].”
This marked the start of agent troubles for the Frenchman, something that would prove to consistently plague his career.
“I tell this to the young players under my care today: It is not because you are good that you may succeed. Success doesn’t come because you are a good player. Success comes because you have good people around you. It comes because you are clever [about] your decisions.”
Returning to Africa and the Unrealized Scottish Dream
Toto felt like he needed a breath of fresh air and believed that a return to Africa for vacation would allow him to clear his head and consider his next move for his footballing career. He also reunited with his mother, who was in Cameroon then. Toto wanted to spend time with her because his parents had separated when he was young. After they had separated, he spent most of his time with his father in France.
“I was presented so many opportunities [to pursue a professional career]. During my time in Italy, some people were interested in me because of the way played football. I got trials and opportunities. One of them was a trial to Qatar. It was an amazing opportunity but I decided not to follow through with it because of the conditions of the contract.”
I didn’t sign the professional contract [offered to me by Qatar], and I separated from my manager. I also needed distance from my father because our relationship wasn’t that good at that point in time. I decided to go back to my house in Africa to gain back my strength.”
It was after that trial in Qatar that the biggest opportunity of his professional career came knocking. Edinburgh giants Hearts offered Toto a trial, and he relished the opportunity to sign with the club and play in the Scottish Premier League.
“I really had the time of my life [at Edinburgh]. Scottish people, man, they’re amazing. I don’t think they’re living in the same world as us. I was 20 years old when I had my trial with Hearts FC. My uncle managed to get me the trial. He was a professional player in South Africa. He was playing in Johannesburg.”
While Toto impressed in the trials for Hearts, the Edinburgh club found the forward to be an expensive player, especially for someone who has yet to feature in top-flight professional football. Why was he expensive, you might wonder? Well, some agent (surprise, surprise) was maybe asking for a hefty agent fee for his services. After all, Toto was a young physical French forward who honed his craft from the famed Metz Academy and showed that he had what it took to become the next breakout star. Toto was confused as to why Hearts found him expensive. The only logical assumption was that his agent was demanding high fees from Hearts, which had dire consequences for the forward’s career.
Despite his agents constant pressing for higher agent fees, Hearts were unwilling to gamble on a relatively inexperienced Toto for such a large amount of money. On top of the enormous agent fees, Hearts would have had to pay mandatory fees to FC Metz, since that was where Toto began his footballing development. However, the Hearts management were blown away by Toto’s technical ability. He was already training with the first team at the age of 18 and earmarked to feature right away once he signed with the club.
Hearts finally decided on the matter. Instead of agreeing to the terms laid out by Toto’s agent, Hearts made a deal with Greenock Morton that would see the forward play for a year with Scottish Championship side. Hearts engineered the move so that the forward could demonstrate his ability on the field on a high level and for an extended period. In essence, it was for Toto to prove to the Hearts board that he was worth the fees demanded by his agent.
And so, he started his professional career with Greenock Morton, but the dream soon became a nightmare. Not long after signing, Toto suffered an injury. However, due to the arrangement between both clubs, he was made to play through his injury.
“I knew in my mind that there is this arrangement in place, but at the same time, I know I couldn’t play. I couldn’t really do anything on the field because it was a tough level. It was very physical in Scotland, and I didn’t do good in Greenock Morton. So when I went back to Hearts, my agent told me that he wanted me to go to another second division club and I said that I was done with it and I want to go back to France.
“I went back to France, and this was when my career started to have a harsh time, a very harsh time. In my head, I was down. I was alone with an agent who gave me false promises. But then, I had this opportunity coming from Singapore.”
In part 2, I will look at Toto’s footballing experience in Singapore, his time in Greece, and what he’s doing now.
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