Where are they now: Frans Thijssen

Dutch star donned the 'Caps kit during '83 and '84 at BC Place

This year Vancouver Whitecaps FC celebrate the 40th anniversary of the club, which was founded in 1974. Throughout the year we will look back at many of the players who donned the Vancouver kit.

WHERE HE STARTED: Born in Malden, Netherlands, Frans Thijssen achieved about everything a soccer player could dream of in his 21-year playing career. He played an integral role on the Ipswich side that hoisted the UEFA Cup in 1981 and was also named the English Footballer of the Year in the same season – the first non-British player to take the award in 25 years.

But before the big stage came the early days in Holland. After working his way through the youth academy of his hometown club, SV Juliana ’31, Thijssen began his professional career with N.E.C. Nijmegen, where he spent three years of his career before he transferred to FC Twente, another Dutch club, to play an additional six seasons.

The midfielder’s career really took off in 1979, when he moved to England to play for Ipswich Town FC. To bring in a foreign player was a rare transfer in England at the time, but Thijssen jumped at the challenge. He praised his manager, the late Sir Bobby Robson, for introducing a more technical game in contrast to the more direct approach of English football, which produced great results during his time at Ipswich Town.

“When I came to Ipswich from Holland, the style of football was very different,” he said. “The English style was to kick it forward as much as possible, so when you played midfield you knew you had to run forward and if you didn’t get the ball you’d have to run back.”

“Bobby Robson changed the style of football, he told the defenders to play it to the Dutch guys in the midfield (Thijssen and Arnold Mühren)…that style suited the team very well.”    

In 1981, Thijssen led his club to European soccer glory. Ironically, Ipswich Town defeated Dutch Club AZ ’67 at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, 5-4 on aggregate to claim the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Cup; the midfield maestro scored a crucial goal in both legs. The club also finished second in the league that year and lost in the semifinals of the FA Cup.

Team success led to individual recognition. This was also the year Thijssen was awarded the prestigious title of English Footballer of the Year, becoming the first Dutch player to win it. Since then, two other Dutch players, Dennis Bergkamp and Robin Van Persie, have gone on to receive the honour.

“The trophy is in my house,” Thijssen gushed.  “I was lucky to have played on a very good team with another great Dutch player. It was special for me as a Dutchman to defeat the champions of Holland in the UEFA Cup final.”

WHERE HE WENT: After a brief stint at Nottingham Forest, Thijssen made the journey across the water to Vancouver, coming to the ‘Caps in 1983.

He was initially convinced by the prospect of continuing his career in Vancouver by Sir Bobby Robson, who also managed Vancouver Royals in 1968. Thijssen sensed that several other strong players would depart Ipswich, and Robson had spoken highly of Vancouver.

The midfielder sported the #9 shirt for the ‘Caps, despite being a midfielder. The Dutchman netted nine goals in 45 appearances for Vancouver. In his two seasons as a ‘Caps player, Thijssen was teammates with two other prominent Whitecaps FC legends who remain in Vancouver, Bob Lenarduzzi and Carl Valentine.

The former English Player of the Year winner had nothing but good things to say about the club when asked about his tenure here, claiming Vancouver is “the nicest city I’ve ever lived in and I’ve lived in many, many places. I enjoyed every minute of my two years here.”

Aside from his impressive technical abilities, Thijssen was famous for his handlebar moustache when he was a member of the ‘Caps, so much so that his teammates nicknamed him “Sam McCloud” (pictured left), the protagonist of an American police drama in 1970 who also had some famous facial hair.

On the international level, the midfielder had three goals in 14 appearances for the senior Dutch national team.

After his two years in Vancouver, the Malden native wrapped up his career with three Dutch clubs: Fortuna Sittard, FC Groningen and Vitesse.

WHERE HE IS: Since retiring from playing, Thijssen has still been involved with soccer, but now as a manager.

He first began coaching with Vitesse once retiring, then with Swedish club Malmö FF. From 2002 to 2009, he spent his time in the Middle East with various youth clubs in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Most recently in the 2011-12 season, he returned home to the Netherlands to work with FC Twente’s U-23 team as an assistant coach to Patrick Kluivert, the Dutch’s second all-time leading scorer in international play.

“Patrick’s a lot younger than me, everybody on the U-23 team knew Patrick,” he quipped. “He stopped playing football a couple years ago and I stopped playing football many, many years ago; that’s a disadvantage, young people don’t know you anymore.”

While the younger kids may not recognize him, many long-time soccer fans certainly still do. Last year’s Whitecaps FC Alumni event marked Thijssen’s first visit to Vancouver in almost 30 years. During his stay, he spent time working with the ‘Caps Residency program – showing that his love for the game at all levels is as strong as ever.

Whitecaps FC begin their 2014 MLS season on March 8 versus New York Red Bulls at BC Place. Season tickets start at just $349, subject to applicable fees. The 'Caps also offer a flexible range of ticket products, including half-season tickets ($244), 5-packs ($149), student season tickets ($199), and a youth soccer half-season ticket ($100). For more information on all Whitecaps FC ticket options, call 604.669.9283 ext. 2 or visit whitecapsfc.com/tickets.