Midway in the second half of last Saturday's North American Soccer League championship game in Seattle, the Minnesota Kicks' 19-year-old forward, Alan Willey, failed to trap an easy pass from a teammate and fell to his knees in exhausted dejection. For a few seconds he gazed up at the ceiling of the Kingdome, thinking, undoubtedly, that it had been one of those days when nothing goes right, and wondering, perhaps, where exactly Zagreb, Yugoslavia was, and how come a team called the Toronto Metros-Croatia was leading his club—the "showcase of the NASL"—2-0.
Up in the seats reserved for team owners and league officials, NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam was agonizing, too. He was wondering how to reconcile himself to a championship game that seemed to be displaying, on national TV, the past meeting—and beating—the future. The youthful, vital Minnesota Kicks were just what Woosnam had wanted as opponents for New York or Tampa Bay in "Soccer Bowl-'76"—a team financially stable in its first year of operation, drawing an average of 23,120 fans per game at Met Stadium in Bloomington, where inexpensive tickets, tail-gate parties with a Big Ten flair and free parking were the talk of the league. The Kicks had won their division and disposed of both Seattle (3-0) and San Jose (3-1) before a NASL record 49,572 on the way to the championship. They were the wave of the future, a selling point in Woosnam's sincere pitch that the U.S. will become the world center of soccer.
But out there flinging East European mud on his shining dream were the Metros-Croatia, a low-drawing team from a low-drawing division—and Canadian rather than U.S. to boot. Here was a team that should have been defeated by Chicago in the quarterfinals—only Toronto won 3-2—and which then certainly should have been blitzed by Tampa Bay, the defending league champs, in the semifinal round—which Toronto won 2-0. Here was Toronto Metros-Croatia, showing up at the euphoric climax of the NASL's most successful season like the ghost of Christmas Past.
"The league is embarrassed that we're here," said one Toronto official, smiling. "But now they're just going to have to stand up and take it like a man." For the new American middle-class image Woosnam and other league owners wanted to project, everything was wrong with Toronto, especially their nickname. "The ethnic aspect of American soccer is over," Woosnam had said earlier, meaning, apparently, that the acceptable image is now English league soccer accented, of course, by luminaries of other persuasions, such as Pelé.
September 5, 1976
Toronto's Croatian connection began before the start of last season, when the Toronto Metros were bailed out of deep financial trouble by a merger offer from Toronto Croatia, an enormously successful team in Canada's semipro National Soccer League. "Just before the season started," said Woosnam, "they demanded to add 'Croatia' to the name. There was nothing we could do at that point." Nothing indeed, since Toronto Croatia was half-owner, and the city's enthusiastic Croatian minority would hardly have been satisfied with less. While televising last week's final, CBS bowed to league pressure and referred to the teams only as Minnesota and Toronto. Several hundred fans, carrying flags recalling the emblem of pre-World War I Croatia, showed up in Seattle, mildly protesting the decision.
The mildness was just as well. Croatians are said to be fierce fighters, capable of making the celebrated bravado of the Philadelphia Flyers look like kid stuff. They do not take slights easily. A few seasons back, when Croatia was still playing semipro in Toronto, a local newsman wrote up a game in which Croatia lost to its long-standing rivals, the Toronto Serbians White Eagles. "I reported the game perfectly straight," the writer recalled last weekend, "but I had to report that Croatia lost. Two nights later I arrived home to find on my front step a big, furry bat, nailed to a board with a spike driven through its heart. It was a criticism from the Croatians."
And this season, when Coach Ivan Markovic benched Croatian Defender Miralem Fazlic, a friend of Fazlic's attacked the coach, by one account with a two-by-four. Markovic resigned, and Fazlic was traded to Rochester.
With Marijan Bilic installed as player-coach, Toronto won its last four games to finish second to Chicago in the league's Northern Division with a 15-9 record—the same as Minnesota's—then swept the first three playoff games. Nevertheless, Toronto seemed old-fashioned in style. Led by Eusebio, a 34-year-old former World Cup player for Portugal, and a roster that reads like a page torn from the Zagreb phone book, Metros-Croatia refused to do anything in flamboyant NASL style. Said Assistant Coach Marijan Kenfelja, "The league would rather have Tampa Bay or the Cosmos here. But they will see. We are a skillful team."
And as the Toronto owners watched—looking a bit like a Russian trade delegation in their baggy suits and shadowy chins among the ultrasmooth NASL board of governors—their team played a final game that was both deftly defensive (their well-known strength) and explosive in front of the Minnesota goal. This out-to-lunch bunch of resistance fighters managed to dominate Soccer Bowl-'76 throughout.
Eusebio scored first on a free kick with 4:32 remaining in the first half. His boot sailed over the outstretched fingers of Kicks Goalie Geoff Barnett, glanced off the crossbar and into the net. Ivan Lukacevic put in the second goal early in the second half, blasting home an Ivair Ferreira pass from seven yards out.
Meanwhile, a newly imported Croatian by the name of Ivan Grnja (pronounced Grunya) gave the young Minnesota midfielders lessons in continental ball handling; his long, blond hair flapping on his square shoulders, he constantly avoided their tackles, moving the ball in the Toronto style, slowly, inch by inch toward the Minnesota goal in deliberate stages.
Grnja made a powerful shot on goal with seven minutes left in the game, and the rebound was booted in by Ferreira for the third and final goal. The Seattle crowd of 25,765, heavily favoring the Kicks, sat in silent awe at the Metros-Croatia performance. It was an exercise in a style of play rarely seen in the NASL's efficient futurism, a lovely performance in history, a continental show that could be called "Croatian Graffiti," a blast from the past.
In the Toronto locker room after the game, the Minnesota captain, Midfielder Alan Merrick, proved himself a gracious loser of the First Division level. He lugged a case of champagne—one the team had brought out to the Coast for themselves—into the winners' room and presented the first bottle to Eusebio with a handshake and a "well done," which may have said more about the rude good health of the NASL than modern marketing theories.
Said Metros-Croatia Goalie Zelijko Bilecki, who had not allowed a goal in the final two playoff games, "I was a hundred percent sure we'd win. I don't know how we forgot champagne."
As Eusebio sipped from a paper cup, his robust Croatian teammates bathed in the bubbly and, led by Grnja, sang lusty provincial mazurkas, laughing and shouting.
One league official sighed as he gazed at the NASL championship trophy in the Toronto room. "It's a shame," he said. "They'll go back to Toronto next season and still only get 6,000 people out, even though they're now the league champs. They're too ethnic."
Indeed, the future of Toronto Metros-Croatia is not unclouded. The team is once again in financial trouble. Carling-O'Keefe, the giant Canadian brewery consortium, has reportedly offered $900,000 for the franchise. That would force the proud Croatians back into the semi-pro league and clear the decks for Woosnam's dream of the 21st Century. In a league that in 10 seasons has never had a team repeat as champions, and which now in a respectable number of cities trembles on the verge of becoming a major spectator sport in North America, the dream could come true. But for this year it was satisfying to see these aging tough guys have their moment.
And if you're in favor of endangered species, it's intriguing to dream about the possibility of the 19 other owners in the league arriving home some evening to find dead bats on their doorsteps.