The man who bleeds Blue and White: Looking back on the legendary career of Bob Lenarduzzi
He remembers the “great atmosphere” at Empire Stadium, which was located less than five minutes away from the house in which he grew up.
He remembers a slide tackle he made on the slick turf, in which he not only tackled the opposing player but came away with the ball himself.
And, of course, he remembers the Whitecaps actually lost the game 2-1 in a penalty shootout. Lenarduzzi, who was just 19 at the time, was one of Vancouver’s scorers in the shootout.
Despite the result, it’s a game Lenarduzzi will never forget.
It wasn’t his first professional game – he actually began his career as a 15-year-old with English side Reading. But playing professional soccer in his hometown was nothing short of a dream come true.
“No question,” Lenarduzzi told whitecapsfc.com. “And had I known back then that I’d spend the majority of my career in Vancouver, I would have been absolutely ecstatic.”
And based on his body of his work over the last 40 years, both on and off the field, there couldn’t have been a better choice.
“He’s it,” longtime Vancouver Province sports reporter Jeff Cross told whitecapsfc.com, when asked about what Lenarduzzi means to soccer in Vancouver. “He’s number one. If you think about one person in terms of soccer in Vancouver, you think of Bob.”
As a player, Lenarduzzi is the club’s all-time leader in games started. He was a member of Vancouver’s 1979 NASL Soccer Bowl championship team and he’s the only Canadian to ever win the NASL Player of the Year award. Though he was primarily a defender (as Cross noted, he actually played every single position for the ‘Caps at one point or another, including goalkeeper for 45 minutes), Lenarduzzi also sits 13th all-time in club scoring with 34 goals.
As a coach, Lenarduzzi led the Vancouver 86ers to an unprecedented four straight Canadian Soccer League titles and was twice named CSL Coach of the Year. During his tenure as head coach, the 86ers once went 46 games without losing a game, a long-standing record for any professional sports team in North America.
And as an executive, the East Vancouver native has served as the club’s general manager, director of soccer operations, and he remains with Whitecaps FC as club president.
Then there are his contributions to the Canadian senior men’s national team, with whom he earned 47 caps, represented at the 1984 Summer Olympics and 1986 FIFA World Cup, and coached for five years.
For his efforts, Lenarduzzi was inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame as a player and was named among CONCACAF’s top 30 players of the past century.
“He hates it when people say this, but he’s the face of [soccer in Vancouver],” said longtime sports journalist Jim Taylor, who co-wrote Lenarduzzi’s autobiography. “He’s a local boy who grew up in the game. He was there when the Whitecaps had their big success and he saw how fast it could go downhill.”
He just wouldn’t let it fail.
After the NASL folded in 1984, Lenarduzzi was one of 86 people who each put up $500 to fund a new team – appropriately, named the 86ers – in the Canadian Soccer League. Not only that, at the request of Tony Waiters, Lenarduzzi took on a massive role on the business/sales side during the team’s formation process. He was, quite literally, the face of the franchise.
“I was essentially selling one ticket at a time, two if we were lucky and the guy had a wife or a kid who played the game,” Lenarduzzi wrote in his autobiography, A Canadian Soccer Story. “I was flying by the seat of my pants.”
Whatever he did, it worked. But it wasn’t necessarily smooth sailing from there. The 86ers went through a few more owners, and there were times when it looked like the team was “destined for the professional soccer graveyard,” Lenarduzzi said.
One of those times was in 2002, not long after the 86ers formally changed their name back to the Whitecaps, when then club’s fate hung in the balance again after then-owner David Stadnyk stepped down midway through the season.
Naturally, Lenarduzzi was tasked with finding his replacement.
“It was not a fun job,” Lenarduzzi wrote in his autobiography. “Several people expressed interest, but they were a bunch of tire kickers, curious in the beginning but quick to shy away from the considerable financial commitment. I was working for nothing, just trying to keep things afloat, but we were nearing the end of the season and I was thinking, jeez, this thing could be over.”
Under new ownership, the 'Caps avoided the "professional soccer graveyard" again and eventually made their way to North America's top flight league, Major League Soccer. There are a number of people who helped make that happen, but it's hard to ignore Lenarduzzi's role in all of it.
Looking back on the last 40 years, Lenarduzzi singled out two specific moments back in 1979 when asked of his proudest accomplishment.
In the build-up to the Soccer Bowl, Vancouver hosted LA Aztecs in the second leg of the quarter-final at Empire Stadium. The Aztecs had won the first leg, but the ‘Caps returned home to win the second leg as well as the ensuing mini-game to move on.
“I can remember walking out the tunnel for the game, the building was full, and I can remember getting goosebumps,” said Lenarduzzi, who turned 59 on Thursday. “The game was memorable, but walking out onto the pitch was especially memorable.”
And then, about a month later, Lenarduzzi said he will never forget the dying moments of the championship game when Willie Johnston shielded the ball at the corner flag as the clock winded down.
“We knew even before the referee blew the whistle that we were going to win and that we were the champions,” he said proudly of the first major North American professional sports championship Vancouver had ever seen.
Through the ups and downs, Lenarduzzi has seen it all since that first game back in 1974. Asked to sum it all up, he said: “I’m just happy that I never had to get a real job.”
In reality, Lenarduzzi has dedicated his life to this club over the last 40 years. If there’s anyone who deserves to be in the Ring of Honour, it’s Lenarduzzi – the man who bleeds Blue and White.
It’s not too late to participate in the best sporting experience in Vancouver. Whitecaps FC offer a flexible range of ticket products, including prorated season tickets ($294), half-season tickets ($244), 5-packs ($149), student season tickets ($199), and a youth soccer half-season ticket ($100). Single-match tickets start at $22, subject to applicable fees. For more information on all Whitecaps FC ticket options, call 604.669.9283 ext. 2 or visit whitecapsfc.com/tickets.