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