Nostalgia can be scary, but I’m planning to put aside any reservations and attend the NASL’s 50th anniversary event in Frisco, Tex., in October. I’ll be taking some time out from my duties as the chairman of the Toronto Arruzzi Soccer Club to make the trip.
Bob Iarusci is a charter member of Canada’s Soccer Hall of Fame and a witness to the glory years of the North American Soccer League — first with the league champion Toronto Metros-Croatia (1976-77), the New York Cosmos (1977-78), the Washington Diplomats (1979-80), the Cosmos again (1981-83) and finally the San Diego Sockers (1984).
“Looking back, I just think it was overwhelming, the number of great players in the league,” Iarusci said. “Now it seems like a dream, like it never happened, it was so bigger than life. I just think the league had energy behind it. Every team was looking for that big player, trying to match the Cosmos.”
Iarusci, a rugged and steady defender, endured knee-replacement surgery last year and is getting ready to have his left knee done later this year. And when it comes to entertaining the prospect of reconnecting with many of his former teammates and opponents, he recounted a plot line from the venerable American drama/comedy about the Bunkers: “All in the Family.”
“Archie was nervous because Edith was getting ready to go to her high school reunion where she was looking forward to seeing an old flame,” Iarusci said. “He went along and felt good when he saw what the guy looked like. So Archie says to Edith, ‘you found your guy.’ And she says, ‘Oh, Archie he was so beautiful. The same blue eyes.’ And Archie shoots back, ‘That’s about all that was left.’ These type of things are never what you expect.”
While that may be, the opportunity to chew over past exploits on the soccer field never gets old, although the players certainly do. For Iarusci, his days in the NASL (and with Canada’s national team in the 1986 World Cup) were seminal days in a lifetime devoted to the beautiful game. He played in every game for his hometown Metros-Croatia in 1976 when the club won the league title. Salary: $6,000.
“I was on the top of the world,” he said. “Then they told me the Cosmos has purchased my contract toward the end of the 1977 season. I was pissed off. It was traumatic. I told them they had disrupted my life. Toronto told me they were doing me a favor. I guess it was true. I went from $6,000 to $32,000 in a heartbeat. I had to call up Metros-Croatia and thank them. Once I got into the States my eyes were opened and I never looked back. I was young, 22, and there was a brave new world in front of me. I had played with Eusebio and I thought that was enough for me. Then I get to Cosmos with Pelé, Giorgio [Chinaglia], Franz [Beckenbauer], Johan [Cruyff]. My god, that’s enough to blow anyone away.
“Once you go out there everyday with those guys you’re learning through osmosis. Through them I realized I can do this, I can play with them and I earned their respect. It was the best part of the whole gig. Hey Franz likes me or Giorgio said I played a good game. That was awesome. It happened to me and it can happen to any North American. Why should you be intimidated on the field. In the end, you’re all the same type of person. You want to win.”
He won consecutive Soccer Bowl titles with New York (1977 and 1978, making it a charmed three in a row; and a fourth with the Cosmos in 1982), but was sent to Washington in 1979, where he played two seasons with another global superstar in Johan Cruyff.
“What can I say, winning four Soccer Bowls,” he said. “They were all exciting, no one more than the other first one with Toronto because it’s my hometown. Just playing with Cruyff, against [George] Best, with Cubillas with Giorgio. Who’s done that? I feel like I’m unique … that was four or five of the greatest players, and against half-dozen others. It all seems very surreal today. Who do you explain this to? Who would understand?”
His two most memorable teammates? Without a doubt Chinaglia and Cruyff.
“Giorgio was the most incredible character and person I’ve ever met,” Iarusci said. “He was driven, it was just infectious in so many different ways. For sheer soccer intelligence, Cruyff was a brilliant guy to speak to. I enjoyed our chats at the airport and on the practice field. He was always talking the game, how to make it more simple. He was talking about what Barcelona later became all those years ago in Washington.”