Tuesday, July 8, 2008

How to Win a League with No Money or Popular Support -- Toronto Metro-Croatia's 1976 Soccer Bowl Win

It is one of the joys of world football that six-hundred Croatian-Canadians could find a reason to drunkenly sing the praises of a Mozambique-born Portuguese superstar in a cultural centre on an industrial street in Toronto.

Eusebio, high on champagne and the recent memory of a massive footballing heist, had only two days earlier scored the first of three Toronto goals to upset the Minnesota Kicks, favourites to win the NASL Soccer Bowl in All-American fashion, in Seattle on August 28 1976.

Toronto Metro-Croatia 1976 (Eusebio Pictured 2nd row, 2nd from left).
Photo Credit: C.N.S.C. Toronto Croatia

That the thirty-two year old 'Black Panther' as he was known was even playing in Toronto was a minor miracle. The team was an absolute mess; three days into the '76 season, Toronto came within a hair's breadth of closing shop completely due to lack of funds. The Metro-Croatia could not even afford their own medical staff and had to invoke the good graces of the Seattle Sounders' club doctor to save six injured team members for the final.

The NASL for their part did not take well to Toronto's presence in the final game, citing lower than expected ticket sales due to the almost completely unknown and unfashionably hyphenated Metro-Croatia, the name the result of a 50% team-saving buyout by the local Toronto Croatia National Soccer League club in 1975. The NASL for their part hated Toronto's moniker, which clashed with the league's cutesy-pie franchise titles like 'Rowdies', 'Timbers' and 'Lancers.' Yet the hyphen stood as a symbol for Toronto's and Canada's growing multicultural identity, and reflected the ethos of the team. As midfielder Carmine Marcantonio said of the impromptu Croatian celebration on the squad's return home, "I don't feel any more Croatian for it for it though, I feel Canadian. That's who we represent."

This was a case of tossed-salad versus melting pot. While Minnesota sported a young, all-American collegiate team, Toronto was a hodge-podge of Yugoslavian, Polish, Italian, German, Hungarian, Portuguese, Brazilian, and Canadian players. They were largely unknown at home save for Toronto's large and active Croatian community and a few pockets of local interest. Yet their win was the first major North American title for the city since the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1967, and would stand until the Toronto Blue Jays' World Series win in 1992. And even though the NASL would go belly-up altogether in 1984, one cannot underestimate the importance of the win for the future of football in Toronto.

This is Part Four of A More Splendid Life's Brief Snippets of the History of Football in Toronto. And because researching this has been so much fun, please send in requests for a particular time period, story or era, and I will do my best to look into it.

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