Monday, July 14, 2008

The Barbarian Invasion: Toronto's and NASL's 1984 Swan Song

Like the Visigoths sacking Rome, Toronto’s barricade-breaking fans probably weren’t aware their violence would herald the end of an empire. Following their second game, best-of-three series 3-2 loss to the Chicago Sting on October 3rd, 1984, pitch-invading Toronto Blizzard fans caused so much disruption at Varsity Stadium that the trophy presentation was forced into the Sting's dressing room. Six months later, the North American Soccer League would collapse under the weight of its easy-come, easy-go expansion teams. America's great soccer experiment had finished in the same chaos from which it began.

Toronto probably didn't have all that much to be angry about; the city had already ruined the party back in '76 with its ragtag team of multi-ethnic footballing veterans. Certainly Blizzard chairman Clive Toye did little to calm the situation, accusing the Sting of 'cheating.' He also took the unprecedented step of not going to the other team's dressing room to congratulate them on the win.

Yet it was the second consecutive loss in the NASL final for Toronto, and after more and more teams declared their intention to leave the league in the 1984 season (including the Chicago Sting), Blizzard fans probably knew their chance would never come again. They deserved better; Toronto's attendance attendance record was above the league average, and players credited the 16 482 fans in helping Toronto to come back and tie the game after going two goals down (in vain). One can't help but feel sad reading Blizzard captain Bruce Wilon's remarks after the game:

"We'll be back again next year, that's for sure."

The NASL was borne out of greed, avarice, and ambition. It was also borne out of invention, risk, and the love of the game -- not the same game we watch and play today, yes. But for all of the cheerleaders, the 35 yard lines, the 'Kick in the Grass' t-shirts, the nicknames, the empty stadiums, the artificial surfaces, the blizzards and the Croatians, the NASL did us a favour by promoting the game in Toronto in ways others could not even dream.

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