In Retro T.O., we revisit key moments and places in recent Toronto history that still reverberate today. This week: The greatest underdog-victory story in Toronto soccer history.
It would be an understatement to say that North American Soccer League (NASL) officials never warmed to one half of the Toronto Metros-Croatia team name. “This is now a major league and there is no longer any place for ethnic names,” New York Cosmos general manager Clive Toye declared following the 1976 season, in an unsuccessful attempt to ban non-North American team nicknames. “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.”
While the league seethed at the ethnic overtones of the Toronto franchise’s name, it was equally annoyed that a perennially indebted, poorly promoted team with a miniscule fan base had claimed the 1976 league title.
When members of Toronto’s Croatian community financially pitched in to merge the local National Soccer League’s Toronto Croatia squad with the hapless Metros in 1975, they bought into a team that was so poor it couldn’t afford an office or a telephone. When the league threatened to prevent changing the team name to Metros-Croatia, the new investors said they’d walk. The name stuck—but only in Toronto, as the league refused to use it in any official correspondence.
Signs of success were few early in the 1976 season. A move to Lamport Stadium was bad for attendance, as the Metros-Croatia averaged 4,500 fans at a time when some cities drew up to 42,000 per game. Though the team had a winning record, its offence was anemic. The Metros-Croatia signed veteran Portuguese star Eusébio to play for $1,000 per game, despite eroding knees that the Star compared to Bobby Orr’s. (“Both possess left knees resembling the Rocky Mountains—including all the lumps and crevices.”) Eusébio initially failed to provide much scoring, which, along with feuding, led to his benching by fiery, hypercritical coach Ivan Markovic.
By July, things looked even more grim. Fullback Miralem Fazlic took a swing at Markovic after being benched and was promptly traded. Going into July 11’s match with the Portland Timbers, the team had gone seven games without scoring in regulation time. While Eusébio scored the drought-breaking goal in a 2-1 victory, Markovic spitefully benched him for the final five minutes of the match. The coach was fired following the game.
Markovic’s replacement, the far-more-relaxed Marijan Bilic, eased tensions and allowed the players to enjoy the game. On the field, the team strengthened their offence with the signings of winger Ivan Grnja and midfielder Wolfgang Suhnholz. Despite further tumult that saw five directors resign, a move back to the team’s previous home at Varsity Stadium, and goaltender Paulo Cimpiel going AWOL on the eve of the playoffs, the team won seven regular and playoff games en route to the 1976 Soccer Bowl championship match in Seattle. The run seemed to be fueled by anger against the league for constantly belittling the team, especially when none of its players were chose for either of NASL’s all-star squads.
While the Metros-Croatia made it to the Kingdome to play the Minnesota Kicks for the title on Aug. 28, 1976, the team couldn’t afford to bring a doctor along. The Seattle Sounders loaned theirs to patch up six injured players. All of them played in the Soccer Bowl, including Eusébio, who had novacaine injected into his left ankle. “It lasted all game,” noted Dr. Marty Kushner, “so I must have given him a good shot.” It certainly was, as Eusébio scored the winning goal in Toronto’s 3-0 victory. League officials consoled themselves in the knowledge that the matchup, which aired on CBS, could have only been worse for ratings if the Metros-Croatia’s opponent had been their fellow Canadian team, the Vancouver Whitecaps. 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.”
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from the Aug. 30, 1976 edition of the Toronto Star
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. An offer from the Carling O’Keefe brewery to buy the team was rejected by team officials. The league was relieved when Global Television bought the team in February 1979 and renamed it the Blizzard, while Toronto Croatia re-established itself as a separate National Soccer League team.
As for NASL’s criticism of ethnic team names, the league failed to take into account the multicultural make-up of Toronto and the Metros-Croatia lineup—as midfielder Ted Polak put it after the Soccer Bowl, “This is not just an ethnic team. We are many nationalities… That is something, no?” It also failed to predict that, decades later, teams in North America’s premier soccer league—such as Toronto’s—would gladly take on names inspired by European leagues.
Additional material from the July 12, 1976 and August 30, 1976 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the May 18, 1976, June 11, 1976, August 24, 1976, and August 30, 1976 editions of the Toronto Star.