Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Footy Transplant: Toronto City's Bizarre Reincarnation in 1967

It's tempting to think the NASL came out of the blue in 1968 as money-men in North America, mesmerized by England's win in '66, finally decided to give that Euro-frippery a try. The reality is decidedly messier, featuring a kind of convivial merger and acquisition in which Toronto's own Steve Stavro, a grocer with an eye for the beautiful game, played an integral role.

You might remember that Stavro was part of a generation of business persons, journalists and entrepreneurs who thought nothing of concocting professional league structures, teams and possible players over dinner-drinks with friends. At first came the ill-fated Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League of which Toronto City was one team. That league went belly-up after 1966, and on the heels of the World Cup, two brand new North American loops were introduced, initially in competition with one another: in 1967, the National Professional Soccer League in 1967, and the United Soccer Association.

The latter wasn't so much a league of North American clubs in the sense that we would understand it now; rather, teams from across Europe and South America basically came over to play over their summer break in Canada and the US disguised only by cheesy, often alliterative local monikers. In this set-up, Toronto City were represented by Hibernian, and the Vancouver Royal Canadians (!) by Sunderland. Perhaps forecasting its future disdain for the homegrown game, the Canadian Soccer Association deemed to give its blessing to the USA rather than the NPSL, which at least featured a Toronto Falcons team with one or two Canadian internationals.

Confused yet? So were soccer fans tired of dealing with two slipshod leagues. Stavro, along with Lamar Hunt and Jack Cooke who had championed the USA, realised quickly that competing with a league right next door didn't make good business sense, and in 1968 the USA and NPSL merged to become the NASL. 1967 was an odd year but it offers us an interesting snapshot of the length some entrepreneurs were willing to go to transport the game man-for-man across the Atlantic. One could also easily imagine howls of indignation we would hear from local fans of Hibs or Sunderland if this set-up was proposed today.

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