Toronto's forgotten soccer champions? Remembering Metros-Croatia on the eve of MLS final

As Toronto FC gets ready for its second Major League Soccer final in as many years Saturday at BMO Field, now is a good time to remind fans of the beautiful game that this city won a professional soccer championship decades before TFC even existed.

Robert Iarusci and Carmen Marcantonio remember their triumph as Metros-Croatia rookies 41 years ago

Carmen Marcantonio, left, and Robert Iarusci were 21-year-old rookies with Toronto Metros-Croatia when they won the North American Soccer League championship in 1976. (Petar Valkov/CBC)

As Toronto FC gets ready for its second Major League Soccer final in as many years Saturday at BMO Field, now is a good time to remind fans of the beautiful game that this city won a professional soccer championship decades before TFC even existed.  

Toronto Metros-Croatia of the North American Soccer League are this city's forgotten champions, having won the NASL Soccer Bowl way back in 1976 versus the Minnesota Kicks.

But Robert Iarusci and Carmen Marcantonio, both in their 60s now, remember Toronto's triumph well, because they were a part of it.

Both were wide-eyed 21-year-old rookies with Metros-Croatia that season, and friends who had played together since they were 14.

"It was a great league, the North American Soccer League," Iarucsi remembered as he stood on the artificial turf Thursday at Lamport Stadium, the tiny venue where the Metros practised and played most of their home games in 1976.

The chair of the Toronto Azzurri soccer club clearly relished the memories, even as he struggled to walk with his recent knee replacement — the result, he says, of many years of playing soccer on "rock hard" artificial turf. 

"We had a lot of big-name players," he said, listing off legends like Pele, the incomparable Brazilian international, and West German superstar Franz Beckenbauer, who were both lured to North America to play for the star-studded New York Cosmos.

Even Metros-Croatia, a team saved from extinction by businesspeople from Toronto's soccer-mad Croatian community and operated on a shoestring budget, had some star power, with players like the great Portuguese international Eusebio on its roster.   

Robert Iarusci, 63, is now the chair of the Toronto Azzurri soccer club. (Petar Valkov/CBC)

Marcantonio remembers being somewhat star-struck after joining Metros-Croatia, fresh from playing in front of just a handful of spectators every game for Toronto Italia in the old semi-pro National Soccer League.

"All of a sudden, we were playing in front of 50,000 people in New York against the Cosmos with Pele on the field at the Yankee Stadium. That was our first game," he said.

And then having Eusebio, the great Eusebio ... as our teammate. We couldn't believe it."

Toronto was a different city in those days — smaller, less sophisticated and less diverse. Soccer wasn't a big deal outside the city's immigrant communities. Unlike Toronto FC, with its sold-out games at BMO Field, Metros-Croatia struggled to find an audience outside the ethnic population.

But Marcantonio believes Toronto Metros-Croatia planted the seed that made TFC possible.

"I like to think we were pioneers," he told CBC Toronto. "The results of today, MLS, it was because of those days. All the biggest stars of the world played in the North American Soccer League." 

The Toronto Metros-Croatia logo incorporated the Croatian flag, which was a great source of embarrassment to the NASL, a league that wanted to play down the foreign origins of the sport.

But in one respect the Toronto of 1976 was a lot like it is today — starved for championships.

The Maple Leafs hadn't won the Stanley Cup in nine years (that seemed like a long time back then). The Toronto Argonauts were mired in a horrendous Grey Cup drought that had started in 1953 and wouldn't end until 1983.

The Blue Jays were an expansion team that wouldn't begin play in Major League Baseball's American League until the next year. And of course, the National Basketball Association's Toronto Raptors wouldn't be born for another two decades.  

Even so, Metros-Croatia were nobody's idea of a champion when the 1976 season started. The team got little respect.

The league, eager to downplay soccer's foreign origins, disliked the team's ethnic-sounding name and its connection to the Croatian community. The NASL clearly wanted a big-market, glamorous team like the Cosmos to make it to the final, instead of an debt-ridden outfit like Toronto that few people knew of or cared about. 

The great Portuguese international Eusebio accepting the NASL's championship trophy on Aug. 28, 1976 in Seattle.

In fact, even when they had a lead in their NASL semi-final match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, none of the 35,000 people in Tampa's stadium thought Toronto would make it to the title game.

"They had a promotion going on over the loudspeaker during the game," Iarusci remembered, "that was going to enable three or four spectators to go to Seattle, where the final was going to be played ... because they assumed Tampa was going to beat Toronto Metros-Croatia."

When Toronto went up 2-0, stadium staff kept playing the advertisement, even with 10 minutes to go. Finally, Iarusci said, one Toronto player went to a member of the staff to tell them to stop playing the ad.

"By the way, do you realize that perhaps you're not going to win this game?" Iarusci remembers the player saying. "Stop giving people false hope."

The Metros-Croatia would shock the North American soccer world, as well as the city of Toronto with their 3-0 victory over Minnesota in the final. In fact, they shocked even themselves by beating the Rowdies and making it to the Soccer Bowl in Seattle in the first place.

"And so we went to Seattle, Iarusci remembered. "We never even thought we were going to go. We didn't have a change of clothes ...  And then we won handily, 3-0, with Eusebio scoring a magnificent goal."

Carmen Marcantonio, 63, believes the Toronto Metros-Croatia planted the seed that eventually resulted in the success of Toronto FC. (Petar Valkov/CBC)

But Iarusci and Marcantonio think it won't come as a surprise to anyone if TFC wins it all against the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field on Saturday. They're eager to see it happen, even if it means Toronto Metros-Croatia's streak is broken as the city's only professional soccer champions.

"Toronto's now THE marquee franchise for the MLS," Marcantonio said. "Toronto is the greatest football city in North America. I like to believe that."