Real Warriors and Soccer Ghosts - The Tyee

Geoff D'Auria

As homeless Dreamcatchers played Whitecaps oldtimers, the sidelines were full of memories and chatter.

Last Friday, a Vancouver Whitecaps alumni team played the Vancouver Dreamcatchers, a team of homeless or recently homeless preparing for the national championships and the chance to represent Canada at the Homeless World Cup in Melbourne, Australia.

I'll save you the suspense: the old-timer 'Caps, which included brothers Sam, Dan and Bob Lenarduzzi (though Bob was injured and coaching) and current men's national team coach Dale Mitchell, won the game, 4-2. Of course, that was hardly the point. The very fact that the Dreamcatchers exist -- more about them in a bit -- is the point.

They played the game at Hastings Bowl Park, a grassy depression in the ground where Empire Stadium used to stand, squeezed between the old wooden roller coaster and the Trans-Canada Highway. There wasn't a huge crowd, not more than 30 if you don't count the smattering of local media.

What struck me, though, as I stood in the middle of the field listening to Bob talk about why the Whitecaps are supporting the Dreamcatchers, were the ghosts. Maybe I've been reading too much magic realism lately, but the ghosts… they were everywhere.

Super Socco!

Almost 30 years ago on this very spot, Bob was Bobby, a fresh-faced kid patrolling the right side of Empire Stadium's astro-turf field (concrete painted green, really) as a fullback. He'd grown up less than a mile from the field and was leading a plucky, seemingly home-grown Vancouver Whitecaps team to victory against the mighty New York Cosmos, a team filled with high-priced foreign talent, such as Giorgio Chinaglia.

(No, Beckham wasn't the first to play out a fading career in the States. Even Pelé came out of retirement to play briefly for the Cosmos a couple of years before.)

If you weren't around or have forgotten, Vancouver was a different place back then.

For one thing, you could walk 10 minutes up the way and buy a ticket (rarely sold out, except when Montreal was in town) to watch the sad-sack Canucks lose another game in the Pacific Coliseum. Didn't seem to matter who they were playing. They'd lose.

No, for a few brief years -- and I'm pretty sure this isn't just nostalgia speaking, well, mostly -- this was a soccer town. We even had our own proto-sports drink, Dairyland's Super Socco.

Yes, white was the colour. Soccer was the game.

And that night, the semi-final game in the 'Caps improbable march to the NASL Soccer Bowl Championship was electric. I remember the east side of the capacity crowd (32,000) roaring "White!" and the west side responding "Caps!" And in the distance you could see over the water to the North Shore mountains, the same water and the same mountains that gave the team its name.

And then it happened.

Jim McKay, the broadcaster and voice behind the iconic "…thrill of victory and the agony of defeat…," was broadcasting the game for ABC Sports. In trying to put words to the city's captivation with the team and the sport, McKay uttered these locally infamous words, "Vancouver must be like the deserted village right now," referring to the fact that so many people were watching the game on TV.

It caught my young city's fragile psyche short, much like that off-hand David Duchovny comment some years later. Village? We're… we're… world class. Aren't we? And with it, if it wasn't already here, came a collective Napoleonic complex. At least in my imagination, the spell was cast that night.

Clean, with a team

Fast-forward now -- past the inflating of BC Place (with it's 64,000 sterile blue pool chairs), past Expo '86 and the morphing of the Whitecaps into the 86ers and their move to Swangard Stadium, the city shedding its glass skin every couple of years, the 86ers morphing back into the Whitecaps -- come back to Friday afternoon and listen as the fans cheer as Jay, the Dreamcatchers' lanky, balding but dreadlocked striker, slots the ball past a now slightly stooped Sam Lenarduzzi.

I talked to Jay when he came off for a break. He said he is no longer homeless but, like everyone on the Dreamcatchers, has been so in the last two years. That's one of the rules for being on the team. The other rule is that you can't be using. And Jay said he's been clean and sober for five months.

He said that now, when he encounters one of his triggers, he thinks of his teammates, of his commitment to them and to the team goals. He said he also thinks about how he's now a role model. People on the Eastside recognize him when he walks down the street. He thinks of those things and they give him a reason to say no. He's found purpose.

Dreamcatching

On the sidelines, too, was David Chudnovsky, NDP critic for homelessness and mental health, who was also part of an NDP caucus team that got schooled by the Dreamcatchers in an exhibition match a week or so earlier (though Gregor Robertson did notch this nice end-to-end effort). Chudnovsky echoed Jay's words:

"I think that everyone knows that when people get connected to institutions, to a regular activity, to participating in the broader community, that's when they're much more open to, [and] much more able to be successful."

Another Dreamcatcher, Robert Milton, was five when the Whitecaps beat the Cosmos. Like Bobby, he too grew up about a mile from the field. But the midfielder, with a voice as soft as his deft touch on the ball, said he doesn't remember anything about the Whitecaps from when he was growing up.

Milton said he learned to play soccer on reserves. When he saw the Dreamcatchers practicing one day in the Eastside, he asked to play. He's been on the team ever since. And through them, he said, he's also found access to counselling services.

"Sports and arts and culture," Chudnovsky said, "shouldn't only belong to the privileged. We have to help the community understand that sports and arts and culture are for everyone and when everyone's participating, we have a much more healthy community."

Warriors and ghosts

Also on the sidelines was a guy by the name of Mike Cash. Cash is a supporter of the Dreamcatchers and president of Farpost, a company that builds the portable nets. He made the point that giving charity, while often necessary and unavoidable, may sometimes rob people of their self-esteem. The Dreamcatchers gives that self-esteem back -- the players can see themselves getting better, stronger, reaching their goals.

As the game neared the final whistle with the 'Caps victory all but assured, Cash also pointed out that on one side of the field you've got players who had a good night's sleep and a good breakfast. On the other side, you've got some guy who may have woken up on the street that morning.

"Those are real warriors," he said.

As I walked away from the field, one more ghost called out to me. Beyond the north end of the field is a tunnel that runs under Hastings Street. If you peer past the blackberry bushes that border the entrance, you'll see a skateboard park and graffiti mecca. On one side of the wall is a graffiti memorial to Lee Matasi, the artist and activist who helped establish the park, the same man who was shot by a stranger on a downtown street.

We're a big city now. We've got a lot more restaurants and a couple of convention centres. And people who seem to know about these sorts of things keep putting us on these best-of lists. I guess we're there -- world class.

Wouldn't it be nice, though, if the dream that carries us for the next 30 years is to be mistaken for a village again?

Seems like a pretty big dream to catch, I guess, but at least Vancouver now has a plucky little soccer team that is trying to take the first steps.