By Len Corben - North Shore Outlook
It was a Rowdie time in the Big Apple… at least for those from the “village” of Vancouver.
The date was Sept. 8, 1979 – coming up exactly 30 years ago – when the Vancouver Whitecaps tamed the Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-1 to capture the North American Soccer League championship at “Soccer Bowl ’79” in Giants Stadium on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River across from Manhattan.
It was a dramatic on-field climax to the season and it led to an even-more memorable spontaneous outpouring of emotion off-field on the streets of Vancouver following the game and then on a hastily arranged parade from the airport along Granville Street that culminated with a massive celebration of at least 100,000 when the Whitecaps arrived downtown at Robson Square – the village square, so to speak.
You see, legendary sportscaster Jim McKay – famous for his reporting of the terrorist activities at the 1972 Munich Olympics and for his weekly ABC’s Wide World of Sports – was responsible for unintentionally galvanizing our civic spirit to new heights with his reference to Vancouver as being “like a deserted village” when everyone was home watching the NASL playoffs on TV.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. In this case it took a reference to a village to provoke unbridled enthusiasm to praise a champion.
The regular league schedule that year had been reasonably successful for the Whitecaps as they won 20 against 10 defeats.
That included victories in both matches versus the mighty New York Cosmos whose 24-6 record was tops in the 24-team circuit. The first was 4-1 in mid-June on goals by Kevin Hector, Jon Sammels, Carl Valentine and Derek Possee (four of the team’s 11 players who born and raised in England) which delighted 32,372 supporters at Empire Stadium.
The rematch in July was 4-2 at Giants Stadium where 48,753 fans sat on their hands in disappointment while watching an own goal and Vancouver markers by Hector, Ray Lewington and Bobby Lenarduzzi.
Then in August the Whitecaps marched through the first two rounds of the playoffs by defeating Dallas Tornado and Los Angeles Aztecs.
That set up a Vancouver-New York best-of-three semi-final series.
Few figured the Whitecaps could continue to dominate the league champions who were already three-time Soccer Bowl champions, including the previous two years, and who would win again in 1980 and 1982.
The Cosmos were the New York Yankees of the NASL. They’d previously signed the great Pele of Brazil and still had the likes of Italian scoring machine Giorgio Chinaglia and German defender Franz Beckenbauer plus stars from a dozen other soccer-playing nations. The Cosmopolitan name suited them just fine.
But, surprise, Vancouver won the first game 2-0 on goals by Willie Johnston and Trevor Whymark as 32,875 at Empire roared their approval with one side of the stadium screaming “White” and the opposite side responding with “Caps.”
New York did take the second at home on a shootout after a 2-2 deadlock and a scoreless overtime witnessed by 44,109 as John Craven and Johnston traded goals with Chinaglia. However, the deciding mini-game that immediately followed was won on a nail-biting shootout by Coach Tony Waiters’ blue and white-clad Whitecaps.
The absence of the Cosmos from “Soccer Bowl ’79” did not deter 66,843 paying customers from crowding into Giants Stadium a week later for the sudden-death championship game.
The Whitecaps opposition were the Tampa Bay Rowdies (who had won the title in 1975 and reached the final in 1978 before losing to New York).
Two goals by Whymark, one in each half, virtually silenced the pro-Rowdies throng which seemed to hold it against the Whitecaps for eliminating their beloved Cosmos seven days earlier.
Bob Lenarduzzi, the face of soccer around here from even before that cherished season through to the present, now as President of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC, has lived on the North Shore since 1980. The Whitecaps offices in Gastown have a magnificent view of the water and North Shore mountains from which the team name was derived.
Last week, Lenarduzzi took time to reflect on that special time so long ago.
“I often run into people who were at the game from Vancouver,” he explains. “There was a core of our supporters that went to the game and were behind the goal where we scored our first goal. The unfortunate thing is they missed the parade because they didn’t get back in time.”
His most vivid memory of the game? “The actual conclusion,” he says. “I remember the ball being in Tampa Bay’s end and I looked up at the scoreclock and there was very little time left. Willie Johnston and Alan Ball were in the corner and were just running the clock down and it appeared there wasn’t going to be a lot of time for Tampa Bay to get to the other end. And then shortly thereafter, whilst I was thinking that, the whistle blew. At that point it was the elation of having won the Soccer Bowl.”
Then came the surprisingly gigantic reception at home.
“It was shocking, for all the right reasons, that that many people assembled in downtown Vancouver,” Lenarduzzi acknowledges.
“We were coming back on the flight and I remember being handed a parade route. I was sitting beside Buzz Parsons and jokingly suggested to him that this could be a little embarrassing if there’s a parade and no one’s at it. Of course I had no idea what would actually transpire.
“First of all to be greeted by the crowd at the airport and then on the route to downtown. I think it was being covered live on CBC. So people were coming out from their houses to wave at us as we were making our way down towards Robson Square.
“I think for me and the other local guys, it was probably even that much more special because it takes a lot for this city to react that way. Obviously in our case it did at that time.”
Okay, all together now:
White is the colour,
Soccer is the game,
We’re all together and winning is our aim,
So cheer us on through the sun and rain,
Because Whitecaps, Whitecaps is our name!
This is episode 345 from Len Corben’s treasure chest of stories – from the great events and the quirky – that bring to life the North Shore’s rich sports history.