The saga of Toronto's 1970s entry in the North American Soccer League, and its underdog championship.
Toronto sports fans needed a champion in 1976. The Argonauts hadn’t hoisted the Grey Cup since 1952. The Maple Leafs were nine years into their Stanley Cup drought. The Toros had fled to the hockey hotbed of Birmingham, Alabama. The Blue Jays were preparing to launch their first season, so who knew how long it would be before they reached the World Series?
The Metros-Croatia victory in the 1976 Soccer Bowl was an underdog story the city could embrace. The team endured a strife-filled season, not enhanced by a league which disliked the ethnic tenor of the team’s name and was annoyed that a perennially indebted franchise with meagre attendance made the finals instead of a premier market like New York.
As soccer exploded as an amateur sport across North America in the mid-1960s, veteran sports entrepreneurs, especially NFL owners, saw an opportunity for a professional gold mine. Two rival leagues began play in 1967: the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) and the United Soccer Association (USA). Both were confident that soccer was the sport of the future. “We won’t go broke in soccer,” declared Jack Kent Cooke after a USA meeting at the Royal York Hotel in February 1967. “It will succeed. I’ve never backed a loser and I don’t intend to start now.”
Cooke may have later regretted that statement. While he had tasted success with Toronto’s Maple Leafs baseball team, had a winner with basketball’s Los Angeles Lakers, and got the Los Angeles Kings off the ground, he wasn’t so lucky with the USA’s Los Angeles Wolves. Nor were the other owners in either league. Heavy financial losses, coupled with a looming anti-trust lawsuit, prompted the leagues to merge in January 1968, forming the North American Soccer League (NASL).
The merger left a complicated legal situation in Toronto. Both leagues were attracted to our city by its multicultural diversity and growing amateur and semi-pro soccer infrastructure—in youth soccer, participation across Metro rose from 5,000 in 1964 to 17,500 in 1969, while senior leagues steadily added teams. With the merger, the NPSL’s Falcons agreed to buy out USA’s Toronto City, which was owned by Knob Hill Farms proprietor/future Maple Leafs owner Steve Stavro, who quickly wondered where his first payment was. He was also miffed that the Falcons wanted a piece of the annual promotion of a match between European teams he retained as part of the settlement. Stavro threatened legal action to prevent the Falcons from opening their home season at Varsity Stadium in May 1968.
Muddying matters was the interference of Canada’s governing soccer body, the Canadian Soccer Football Association (CSFA). It would take a full column to detail their financial demands on the Falcons and the Vancouver Royal Canadians, which CSFA president Bill Simpson justified on the grounds that “soccer development in Canada costs an enormous amount.” The basics are that CSFA wanted a flat $25,000 payment, percentages of gate receipts from league games and matches against international teams, money to cover legal fees stemming from the anti-trust suit that was dropped, and a sum equivalent to a portion what their American counterpart made from NASL broadcasts on CBS. They also threatened to suspend the Falcons and any team who played against them if the dispute with Stavro dragged on.
By May 1968, the Falcons resolved their problems on both legal fronts. Stavro got his money and promotion, while CSFA agreed to lower fixed fees. Simpson continued to wag his finger at the Falcons, threatening to revoke the franchise if the majority of the money coming to them came from sources other than the gate (Simpson believed insisting on ticket money ensured the teams would continue to promote the sport).
Or maybe the CSFA wanted to profit before the Falcons and Royal Canadians folded, which is what both teams did after the 1968 season. The Falcons were estimated to have lost around half a million dollars. When the 1969 NASL season began, the league had contracted from 17 teams to five. “The pro teams actually hurt soccer, not helped it,” Stavro told the Globe and Mail. “It took some English teams 50 years to develop and in North America they tried to do it overnight.”
NASL kept Toronto in mind as it regrouped. On December 10, 1970, it granted a franchise to Prosoccer Ltd., a group of businessmen headed by John Fisher. Nicknamed “Mr. Canada” for the patriotic tone of his radio broadcasts on CBC during the 1940s and 1950s, Fisher had guided the country through its 100th birthday as Centennial Commissioner. Over 1,000 entries were received in a name-the-team contest, with Metros coming out on top. General manager Jack Daley expected a $75,000 loss in year one, which he termed “a contribution to soccer.”
Despite the second-worst record in league during the 1971 season, the Metros had the second-highest home attendance. They tried to develop roots in the community—coach Graham Leggat conducted school clinics and became a popular dinner speaker, while a partnership with the Toronto and District Soccer League attempted to develop players for the Canadian national team.
But the team’s financial situation faltered. Attendance at Varsity Stadium never matched expectations. Front office personnel were shuffled. An attempt to lure Manchester United star Bobby Charlton out of retirement went nowhere. Leggat’s successor as coach, Artur Rodrigues, intended to keep his day job in the maintenance department of the Clarke Institute. There were few signs of a winning product on the field. By the end of 1973, losses were estimated to be between $175,000 and $300,000.
The Metros had already received grants totalling $40,000 from Metro Council when they were given a $250,000 loan guarantee from the Ontario Development Corporation in December 1973. Giving provincial funds to a pro sports team was so unprecedented at the time that the loan was cleared through Premier William Davis personally. ODC managing director Alan Etchen noted that, as the only major league soccer team in Ontario, the Metros made “a substantial contribution to our ethnic and other cultures.” Etchen believed the team would be profitable within three years, draw tourists, and provide great jobs in fields like advertising and popcorn sales.
Asked about the loan, Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard said that while his team would never tap the provincial treasury, it was a good idea to make money available for sporting ventures. “Soccer is a great sport and we have a lot of Europeans here who understand the game,” he told the Star. “Anything we can do to give them some enjoyment is money well spent.” He also cautioned that “you can’t borrow yourself out of debt.”
Fisher claimed that as a tourist attraction, the Metros were “a better risk than a lot of factories.” Globe and Mail columnist Dick Beddoes would have differed:
Toronto Metros, strongly believing in Santa Claus, have grown utterly shameless about accepting public charity. Failing through their own indifference or incompetence or stupidity, the sponsors of this impoverished soccer team have sought public succor. The notion here is that stores operated for private profit, such as the Metros, should make it on the merit of their merchandise. If they cannot make it on that standard, they should not become what a certain Mr. [David] Lewis calls corporate welfare bums. They should be allowed to sink into bankruptcy without the public being obliged to wade through a bog of red ink to bail them out.
The loan didn’t help. Attendance continued to sink, prompting desperate measures. After having witnessed a sullen crowd, which resembled a jury, team president Bruce Thomas hatched a plan to pay the first 1,000 youth who showed up for a June 1974 game against the St Louis Stars a dollar each to sit in the bleachers and cheer. “If we’re going to go down, let’s not go down in silence,” Thomas told the Star, alluding to signs which pointed to the franchise’s demise. NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam told Thomas the plan broke league rules, so the Metros wound up letting youth in for a one dollar, which also earned them a free ticket to the following game. Despite the deal, only 3,139 showed up to see the Metros lose 2-1. Further attempts to lure youngsters results in stands filled with kids weary of the team’s lousy play.
As the 1974 season ended, offers came in for the club. One group offered to move the team to Mexico City. Citytv was a rumoured buyer. Stavro denied interest, suggesting the best solution was to find a group of businessmen willing to continue losing money in the near-future. The league was committed to having a franchise in Toronto (as part of its utopian vision of having 40 franchises by 1984), even though some observers such as former GM Daley felt there were too many other sports and local, lower-level soccer teams serving as distractions. Whoever bought the team would have to deal with the ODC and Metro Toronto loans.
After four months of negotiations, the Metros announced on February 5, 1975 that half the team was purchased by Toronto Croatia of the National Soccer League. Over two decades, Toronto Croatia had developed a strong organization, winning the NSL championship the previous four years. Under the agreement, they took on half of the Metros’ debts, and insisted the team be renamed Metros-Croatia. When the NASL threatened to prevent the name change, Croatia threatened to walk. Money talked, but the league continued to refer to the team as “Metros” in official correspondence.
The team essentially started from scratch, as the Metros were so poor they couldn’t afford an office or a telephone. Croatia asked for a one-year leave of absence from the NSL, whose president, Toronto city councillor Joe Piccininni, called a presumptuous move. “I personally think they have made a serious mistake in moving into the North American Soccer League,” he observed, “but that is their business.” A war of words ensued between Metros-Croatia and the NSL, with Thomas threatening to seek a ban on all imported players in Ontario-based leagues.
The team finally achieved a winning record in 1975 under fiery coach Ivan Markovic, who had previous run the Yugoslavian Olympic squad. But a move to Lamport Stadium for the 1976 season sent attendance downward again, with an average of 4,697 fans during the first three home games, a distressing figure as ticket sales rose elsewhere around the league.
Given the team’s hapless history, it wasn’t surprising they bungled the announcement on April 26, 1976, that they had signed veteran Mozambique-born star Eusébio. While Thomas held a press conference to promote an exhibition game against Tottenham Hotspur, Eusébio unexpectedly showed up. While he claimed the deal was done, Thomas was puzzled. “I don’t know why he’s even here,” he said. “This exposure can only help his bargaining power.” The team finally admitted they signed him, despite concerns over whether the “Black Panther” could work within Markovic’s highly structured system, and whether his knees, which were eroded as badly as Bobby Orr’s, would hold up.
During his debut the following night, Eusébio admitted he didn’t play well because, having spent the winter playing in Mexico, Toronto was colder than he was used to. He also noted he spent much of the game studying his teammates, concluding “they are a good team.” As team officials feared, Eusébio soon chafed under Markovic’s hyper-criticism, leading to benchings. An anonymous team official told the Star that Eusébio was a clubhouse lawyer of the first order and has been causing dissent among the players. “That’s one thing. Another is that he’s being paid more than $1,000 a game to score goals and he hasn’t been scoring.”
The coach showed signs of cracking during a May 30 return to Varsity Stadium, one of several games which tested the field’s readiness for soccer during the 1976 Summer Olympics. Metros-Croatia received numerous stoppage of play calls throughout the match, prompting Markovic to repeatedly run onto the field to protest. During one of those runs, he either pushed or hit Eusébio.
The situation was grim by mid-July. Despite a winning record, attendance failed to budge at Lamport, either because fans weren’t used to the team’s new home, or the new top ticket price of $5 was too high. A proposed sale to Carling O’Keefe brewery fell through when an offer was rejected by Croatia shareholders, who decided instead to inject an addition $120,000 into the team. The promotional budget was miniscule. Player cheques were late. A collection was taken up by members of Our Lady Queen of Croatia church to pay Filip Blaskovic’s salary. The anemic offence failed to score over seven straight games before Eusébio broke the 755-minute long drought on July 11 against the Portland Timbers. Markovic rewarded him with a benching. The coach was booed.
Not that Markovic would have cared. Earlier that day he announced his resignation for “personal reasons,” though it looked like a firing to some. His demise was attributed to his demanding nature, penchant for altercations with players and their friends (such as when a buddy of Miralem Fazlic reputedly went after Markovic with a two-by-four following a benching), and the scoring drought. “I am not happy to go, but I must go and don’t wish to say anything about anybody who brought it about,” he told the press. As an unidentified member of the Croatian community told the Star, “when a team goes seven games without scoring a goal, something has to give, and in this case it was the coach.”
His replacement, Marijan Bilic, had captained Toronto Croatia during their NSL days. His relaxed style eased tensions, allowing players to enjoy the game. It also helped that Markovic’s finale was also the team’s last game in Lamport (attendance 3,490), as they moved back to Varsity for their final three home matches. Thomas and four other directors held over from the Metros era resigned at the end of July, a move Croatia officials felt was long overdue, feeling the holdovers offered poor financial support to the team.
Through the efforts of players such as goaltender Paulo Cimpiel, who had nine shutouts, improved play from Eusébio (named captain after Markovic’s departure), and late-season signings of winger Ivan Grnja and midfielder Wolfgang Suhnholz, Metros-Croatia clinched a playoff spot on August 11. Eusébio, whose financial health was good, thanks to transatlantic real estate investments, promised to share the performance bonuses in his contract with his teammates, as the league banned overall team bonuses. “I can’t tell you how impressed everybody on the team is,” goaltender Zeljko Bilecki told the Star, “He wants to win so badly.”
The run to the Soccer Bowl was filled with obstacles, ranging from injuries to several key players to Cimpiel going AWOL. But the team was determined to prove naysayers within NASL who constantly belittled the team, especially when no Metros-Croatia players were picked for either of the league’s all-star rosters.
The league was still hung up on the team name. “We were put in a spot and haven’t forgotten it,” a NASL official admitted to the Star. “This is a group interested not so much in advancing soccer in your city as advancing their own national aspirations.” They were peeved that the Carling O’Keefe offer had been rejected. And they were especially peeved that Metros-Croatia was going deep into the playoffs while the league’s marquee team, the New York Cosmos, had been eliminated. Visions of Cosmos stars like Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia drawing viewers to CBS’s broadcast of the Soccer Bowl vaporized.
Metros-Croatia had won seven consecutive games by the time they arrived at the Kingdome in Seattle to take on the Minnesota Kicks on August 28 for the Soccer Bowl. The league instructed the PA announcer to refer to each team by their city, to avoid uttering the dreaded term “Metros-Croatia.” Toronto officials smiled at the discomfort their presence gave NASL management. “The league is embarrassed that we’re here,” one told Sports Illustrated. “But now they’re just going to have to stand up and take it like a man.”
As per usual with the team’s finances, they couldn’t afford to bring a doctor along. The Seattle Sounders loaned theirs to patch up six injured players, all of whom played in the game. Among the walking wounded was Eusébio, whose ankle was shot up with novocaine. “It lasted all game,” noted Dr. Marty Kushner, “so I must have given him a good shot.”
It was, as Eusébio scored the winning goal in Toronto’s 3-0 victory before limping off to the dressing room. “When I scored our first goal, I knew we’d win,” he told the Sun. “I didn’t think I could have played the whole game. I thought maybe I’d play 30 or 40 minutes but my teammates asked me to try and keep playing. It was a sacrifice but it was good to do it for this team and for Canada.”
The game drew 25,765, a record for the NASL championship. As the Star‘s Jim Kernaghan observed, “The dust had settled at the Kingdome and the guys from the wrong side of the tracks, the no-name Toronto Metros-Croatia, had grabbed soccer’s top award on this continent and gone, leaving many wondering what happened.” The Globe and Mail‘s Christie Blatchford saw it as a victory for Croatia’s shareholders for all the belittling they received about the team’s name, hoping they might be bold enough to drop “Metros.”
The next morning, around 300 fans greeted several returning members of the team at the airport. A party was held late into the night at the Croatian National Hall on Dupont Street. The rejoicing was short-lived, as the team’s financial troubles made it impossible to match contract offers for free agents like Eusébio and Suhnholz. The league continued to harp on the team’s name—hours after the victory, New York Cosmos GM Clive Toye introduced a motion prohibiting nicknames which weren’t North American. “This is now a major league and there is no longer any place for ethnic names. I admire the tremendous contribution various ethnic groups have made but soccer can stand on its own feet now and doesn’t need to have Scottish, Italian, or any other kind of ethnic name.” One wonders what he would have made of MLS’s later emulation of European team names. The motion failed.
Metro Council infused more money into the franchise. Another bid from Carling O’Keefe was rejected in November 1976 on the grounds too many people would lose their investment, even though the brewery offered $900,000. Their title defence in 1977 ended in a semi-final loss to the Rochester Lancers. By the end of that season, the team owed around $1 million, prompting some creditors to resort to collection agencies.
The Metros-Croatia saga ended on January 31, 1979, when 85 per cent of the team was sold to the owners of the Global television network. Within weeks, the team was renamed the Blizzard and gained a new home at Exhibition Stadium.
Toronto Croatia re-established itself as a separate National Soccer League team. The club continues to operate, long outlasting the demise of the NASL in 1984 (whose final championship game the Blizzard lost). Despite all the claims soccer was poised to become the next great North American pro sport, NASL failed to develop a foundation. Rather than nurture the pool of American and Canadian talent developing in local leagues, it threw money at foreign players nearing the end of the line. In Toronto, the obsession with Metros-Croatia’s name showed that league officials failed to understand how a multicultural environment could spark interest and form a base to build upon. “This is not just an ethnic team,” midfielder Ted Polak noted after the 1976 Soccer Bowl. “We are many nationalities…that is something, no?”
Toronto proved it could embrace soccer, whether it was playing on the nearest field or spilling out onto city streets to celebrate World Cup victories. And, despite mixed results on the field,. Toronto FC has found the financial success the Metros never discovered. In August 2016, to mark the 40th anniversary of Metros-Croatia’s victory, Toronto FC honoured the achievement.
Additional material from the February 15, 1967, March 29, 1968, April 17 1968, April 27, 1968, May 15, 1968, April 22, 1969, September 26, 1969, December 11, 1970, August 4, 1971, November 13, 1971, November 3, 1972, December 4, 1973, December 6, 1973, December 7, 1973, June 13, 1974, August 20,1974, October 19, 1974, November 21, 1974, February 6, 1975, March 12, 1975, April 27, 1976, April 28, 1976, May 31, 1976, July 12, 1976, August 30, 1976, September 11, 1976, August 19, 1977, and February 1, 1979 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 6, 1976 and October 27, 1986 editions of Sports Illustrated; the January 19, 1968, December 7, 1973, June 6, 1974, May 1, 1975, May 6, 1975, May 18, 1976, June 11, 1976, July 8, 1976, July 12, 1976, August 24, 1976, August 26, 1976, August 30, 1976, and November 11, 1976 editions of the Toronto Star; and the July 9, 1976, July 11, 1976, July 12, 1976, July 30, 1976, August 29, 1976, and August 30, 1976 editions of the Toronto Sun.
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