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  • Volume Eight, Number Five: July 2003

    White is the Colour, Soccer is the Game...

    John Hughes

    The summer of 1979 was the peak of a Vancouver sporting era that declined soon after its moment in the sun. The Vancouver professional sporting trinity that was the Canucks, the Lions and the now defunct North American Soccer League’s Whitecaps had conspired in the years prior to 1979 to produce dismal results and rampant fan apathy.

    The former home of the Canucks, the Pacific Coliseum, became known as the “Pathetic Mausoleum” owing to the sorry combo of a lousy hockey team and quietly dismayed supporters. The BC Lions were horrific for most of the decade yet still managed to produce crowds that would bring Empire Stadium to about two thirds of its capacity. The “City of Champions” Vancouver was not. It still isn’t but we did have a resident sporting saviour in town, for a brief period anyway, in the form of the Whitecaps.

    The Whitecaps had been building something for a few years prior to the 1979 season. Largely ignored from their inaugural season of 1974, things began to change on a summer night in 1977 with an impressive 5-3 win over Pele and the star-studded New York Cosmos.

    A relatively short love affair began that night between a city and a plucky soccer team made up of very talented local players like Bob Lenarduzzi and journeyman British footballers such as Kevin Hector. By 1978 the team had produced a decent regular season record before bowing out to the Portland Timbers in the playoffs. The team was, however, ready to be champions the following season after a scant five years of growth.

    Whitecaps games in 1979 were not just games; they were all-day affairs. I was nine years old that summer and game days were filled with unbridled excitement because it meant the entire day playing soccer at nearby New Brighton Park or riding the roller-coaster at the PNE with my older cousin and his friends. A whole day to prove to some very cool teenagers that I would no doubt become the future goalie for the Whitecaps after my idol, starting ‘keeper Phil Parkes, retired. Ah, it was an amazing time.

    The games themselves felt almost like a very groovy after party; the supercharged atmosphere of a packed Empire Stadium following a day of playing a first class soccer game yourself was nothing less than sublime.

    The Whitecaps, their fans, the stadium and its environs existed in a magnificent symbiosis on those sultry summer nights. The players always wanted to put on a show. Super cheerleader, Krazy George, had the fans perpetually whipped into frenzy and the team always seemed to win.

    Players like Trevor Whymark, Bob Bolitho and Roger Kenyon delighted female supporters with their 70’s chic big hair. Marvelous personalities abounded on that squad. Wee Willie Johnston, for example, was known not only for his prowess as a goal scorer but his ability to do so under the influence. One game in San Jose that season saw a fan offer Willie a libation from a bottle in a brown bag prior to taking one of his trademark throw-ins. The throw-in didn’t result in a goal but he did pot one later in the game. Perhaps fittingly, Wee Willie owns a pub in his native Scotland today.

    With all their character, talent, big hair and fan support, the Vancouver Whitecaps won the North American Soccer League championship that year. Although no one knew it at the time, that playoff run was as good as it would get for the team and its fans. The playoff games were played at a lightning quick pace and series wins over the Dallas Tornado, Los Angeles Aztecs, New York Cosmos and, finally, the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the Soccerbowl championship game were like epic poems played out in real time.

    The Whitecaps became Soccerbowl champions on the strength of two Trevor Whymark goals and the photo image of mop-tops Whymark and midfielder Ray Lewington gripping the trophy in the fashion of conquering heroes has cut an indelibly poignant memory in the collective mind of the Vancouver soccer fan.

    Alas, filthy lucre worked its way in to sabotage a beautiful thing. The team’s president that championship season was former Canadian Football League starter and Social Credit MLA, Herb Capozzi. Capozzi wrote shortly after the Soccerbowl win that the 1979 Whitecaps had been built on relatively low cash flow. Bickering over salaries and playoff bonuses followed from that, resulting in dissention amongst teammates and that loving feeling was lost.

    Throw into the mix the fact that the North American Soccer League was only a few seasons away from being mismanaged into oblivion and you have the final chapter of what happened to that fantastic team. The Whitecaps have indeed risen from the ashes to provide good value entertainment at Swangard stadium in Burnaby but the wonderful magic of 79 is gone forever.               


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