Whitecaps soccer season ends; highlights love for ‘the beautiful game’

Features, Sports

Published in the Canadian Immigrant, October 25, 2011

When the ball first rolled at kickoff on March 19, 2011, the crowd erupted and an electric feeling shook Empire Stadium. It had been a long time since the Whitecaps, which originated in 1974, had battled in a Major League setting. The boisterous B.C. fans, deprived of their major league team for so long, watched euphorically as their team defeated Toronto FC 4-2 in the proverbial east-west rivalry.

For those fans old enough — or in Canada long enough — to remember the original Whitecaps, the noise and spectacle at the legendary Empire Stadium (the team’s original haunt) undoubtedly brought back fond memories of Vancouver’s golden era of soccer. Indeed, just five years after their inaugural game in the North American Soccer League (NASL), the Whitecaps went on to defeat the New York Cosmos — a team once fronted by one of football’s greatest living legends, Pele — in the semifinal of the NASL Soccer bowl championship in 1979.

That game was followed by a win in the championship final match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies; upon their return home, the Whitecaps were greeted by a throng of 100,000 appreciative fans, who took to the streets to celebrate the historic win.

For some, the distant memories of the 1970s will seem like better times, especially when compared to the Whitecaps’ mediocre performance this season. Like many nascent franchise teams, the Whitecaps struggled through their first season and posted a losing record.

But hopefully most soccer fans will keep looking forward. The game has evolved significantly since Vancouver brought home some heavy hardware in 1979, and many believe those changes have been largely positive.

Soccer fan base in Canada growing

The team’s president, Canadian soccer legend Bob Lenarduzzi is one. While not happy with the team’s overall finish this season, ending October 22, Lenarduzzi highlights the fervour and warmth with which Vancouver fans supported his team throughout the trying campaign. “I’m encouraged by the fact we’re still able to put 20,000-plus in there in spite of having had a bad year,” he says.

“We’re going to turn it around and I think when we become competitive our fan base will continue to grow.”

Indeed, any spectator having witnessed the Whitecaps in action at Empire Stadium — or having walked by the venue on match day, for that matter — can attest to the loud and festive noise that travels far.

Almost immediately following the Whitecaps’ inaugural MLS match against Toronto FC, fans were singing in unison, calling and responding, and stamping on the noise-conducting metal bleachers at Empire Stadium. “We were stamping and stomping our feet on the floor and that reverberated all through the stadium,” says long-time Whitecaps super-fan, and perennial season-ticket holder Anton van As.

A self-professed “soccer nut” who developed his appreciation for “the beautiful game” in his native Holland, before immigrating to Canada in 1952, van As has been a loyal supporter of the Whitecaps through their various incarnations since their inception in 1974.

The contagious atmosphere at Whitecaps matches, which van As describes so vividly, is now standard fare and one which, as Lenarduzzi says, helps differentiate soccer from its other pro, North American competitors.

In fact, the soccer atmosphere so typical of Whitecaps games today is also significantly different from that of the 1970s and 1980s.

“In the 1970s when we were putting 32,000 people at the old Empire Stadium, I’d hazard to guess that a lot of the people who were coming really didn’t have a good feel for the game, but we kind of just caught fire and it was the thing to do to go watch the Whitecaps,” says Lenarduzzi. Today’s soccer fan is, perhaps, more sophisticated.

“You see our first game at Empire when there was a sell-out crowd for the first time in many years, over 20,000 people inside the stadium, and they were cheering and chanting without being coerced into doing that — it was just a natural thing. It was as though they had been doing it for four or five seasons and you can only put that down to more educated fans that know the game,” says Carl Valentine, former Whitecaps player and current club ambassador.

In a country where hockey reigns supreme, and where other sports, like American football and baseball have, historically, relegated soccer to third-fiddle status, soccer now thrives. Pele and Maradona are suddenly joined by the likes of Ronaldinho, Beckham and Messi on the Canadian list of household names; sightings of shirts bearing the names of Camilo and Hassli, Drogba and Fabregas are now as common as those of Crosby and Ovechkin, Iginla and Sedin. Whereas some 15 years ago, no satellite dish meant no soccer, now it seems soccer is everywhere.

“Now, it’s at your fingertips,” says Lenarduzzi.

Immigrants love soccer

Another phenomenon that has played an undeniable role in bringing soccer to the fore in Canada is immigration. Many of Canada’s newest residents have come from countries where soccer is the predominant sport and as they have settled in they have sought to share their love of the game with their children.

“I followed Man United since I was a child,” says Valentine, who grew up in the legendary soccer city of Manchester before coming to Canada where he played for the Whitecaps and Canada in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

“And when you have kids you can’t always tell them ‘let’s jump on a plane and go over and I’ll show you what the atmosphere (at Old Trafford) is like,’ but you have a passion for it,” he explains, noting that the more feasible alternative is to take them to see a local team like the Whitecaps.

Next generation of soccer fans

Eleven-year-old Jennifer Mejia, whose father learned soccer growing up in El Salvador, tells a similar tale. “My dad used to play soccer when he was little, so I wanted him to pass down the tradition so I started playing soccer with him and that’s when I got onto a team and started playing,” says the Marpole Phoenix (U-12 Select) player. Her teammate, Amrit Jaswal, also learned to appreciate soccer through her father.

“My dad put me on a soccer team and I didn’t really like soccer at first because I thought it was boring, but then I started playing it and now I love it,” says Jaswal.

Having started soccer early, both Jaswal and Mejia have not only plenty of time, but also a lot of choice as to how they want to progress within the sport.

The Vancouver Youth Soccer Association (VYSA), a volunteer-run society that governs soccer in Vancouver, has been working with other bodies like the BC Soccer Association in an effort to improve the quality of the sport, the standardization of coaching and the promotion of a sustainable and deep soccer program. Most importantly, however, the VYSA seeks to provide youngsters with ample opportunities to pursue their own soccer ambitions.

“Most of the soccer players we have within Vancouver are recreational players and that’s the whole idea within Vancouver Youth Soccer is that we want to ensure that every child coming into the system has a positive experience and a positive home,” says VYSA chair Karen Thompson.

With a robust and varied soccer system starting at the youngsters’ level, the dream of cheering our national squad in the tournament of tournaments, suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

“How can we do a better job of ensuring that we don’t qualify (for the World Cup) by accident and that we continue to qualify for future World Cups because there is a steady flow of players coming through the system?” says Lenarduzzi, noting that all the stakeholders involved — local, provincial and national clubs and associations must work together to make it happen.

“For me, it all revolves around youth development or development of the elite players and how early we start.”