Sports

40 years after his first game, Vancouver's Glen Johnson honoured by Whitecaps

Vancouver Whitecaps player Glen Johnson (left) poses with Brazilian legend Pele, then with the New York Cosmos of the NASL. Johnson was honoured by the Whitecaps for their 40th anniversary match last Saturday, before Vancouver
Vancouver Whitecaps player Glen Johnson (left) poses with Brazilian legend Pele, then with the New York Cosmos of the NASL. Johnson was honoured by the Whitecaps for their 40th anniversary match last Saturday, before Vancouver's game against the San Jose Earthquake.
— image credit: Submitted by Glen Johnson

March 5, 1974. Vancouver kid Glen Johnson, at the tender-by-perspective age of 23, is named the Whitecaps' man of the match at the end of a 2-1 loss to the San Jose Earthquake. Both the Caps and the Quake were playing their first-ever games in the league then known as the NASL, in front of 17,000-plus at Vancouver's Empire Field.

And last Saturday – 40 years later, nearly to the day – Johnson stood on the green at BC Place, honoured in front of his home crowd.

New faces, a new generation, a new result (the Whitecaps beat San Jose this time, 3-2) and a new league name, but the memories flooded in.

"I was ready to go," he said, adding that the national anthems were his pre-game pump-up when he played.

"To get absolutely absorbed into focusing... to block everything else in your life out and be on the field and only on the field," he said, "I got got revved up at anthem time."

Johnson was honoured pre-game along with 10 of his '74 comrades, including current Whitecaps suit Bob Lenarduzzi, who was inducted into the team's Ring of Honour with Carl Valentine, Domenic Mobilio, and Andrea Neil.

After playing for West Brom in England's Premiership from 1969 to 1973, Johnson was the Whitecaps first-ever signing – the established star of a brand spankin' new club in Vancouver, which would soon compete against incoming international supernovas like Pele and Franz Beckenbauer (who would join the New York Cosmos), George Best (L.A. Aztecs), and Portuguese legend Eusebio.

Johnson retired at the age of 25, moving his focus from the pitch to his family. He left the Whitecaps when his son, Nathan, was diagnosed with Leukemia in 1975.

Nathan passed away in 1980, at the age of five, when his father was just 29 years old.

Johnson now lives in White Rock and runs a sporting apparel and promotional products company, Team Sales Ltd., out of Richmond.

Johnson, who was raised in Vancouver, has made his life in and around the Lower Mainland. So it was a long journey – albeit a short drive – to Saturday's anniversary match at BC Place.

"All the players felt the same way, that it was really cool to be honoured," he said. "It was good – it was great. They treated us really well."

Although soccer's the biggest game in the world, in some ways it's the smallest.

The fandom is so intimate and the relationships the game creates – whether they're between player and coach, the team and its city, or the fans and their club, the logo of which they proudly wear like a patch wherever they travel – are so lasting, anyone in the soccer family is welcome at the table.

"It really connects people all over the world, and it's ongoing," Johnson said.

"A number of the current Whitecaps and a number of the current Earthquake players, they actually thanked us for starting this up some 40 years ago and that they wouldn't be doing it now."

Johnson, who was inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame in 2007, recalled leaving West Brom before signing with Vancouver, and he took a leap of faith with his wife, Gaye, when he returned to Canada and North America. The Whitecaps didn't exist yet, but they just knew they wanted to be back home in B.C.

"Anybody that wanted to play at a level above amateur had to leave Canada and North America at that time," he said. "We didn't like the U.K. We were spoiled coming from a city like (Vancouver) and then living in an industrial city like Birmingham. I could see the older players in their careers in the U.K. didn't have a lot.

"They lived the life and they spent the money as fast as they earned it."

He was signed by Vancouver with floppy disco hair and a dancing suit, and right when the game's most ambitious league was taking aim at the soccer world.

"It was great luck to be a part of the beginning," he said. "It's very humbling to go back 40 years to where you were, and to still be recognized and appreciated."

Johnson has season tickets to the Whitecaps and has been encouraged by what the team's done on the field this season, going 3-4-2 under new coach Carl Robinson and with young stars like Kekuta Manneh and Pedro Morales.

Both Morales and Manneh scored last weekend, and are making it easy for Caps fans to forget about former star Camilo Sanvezzo, who bailed on Vancouver for Mexico last offseason.

"I wasn't a big Camilo fan," Johnson said. "I thought he had very poor vision and I didn't think he was a team player. There's people that just try to create an opportunity and then they kind of go blind.

"(Now) the quality's quite good. The first touch is under control... they're dangerous and they're young."

The Whitecaps' inaugural player is encouraged by what he sees in the stands, as well.

"There's definite enthusiasm there and we find when we give our tickets away, quite a few of them have never been to soccer at a high level," Johnson says. "The fan experience of just having a good time out and being energized and being involved, the feedback is always just really positive."

His tickets are tucked in near the Caps' most raucous section, the infamous Southsiders. Their language isn't always PG, but so what?

"Even on a bad day, those guys don't stop. They're always positive," Johnson said. "Meanwhile, you can go to a Canucks game and hear a penny drop two sections over."

The league Johnson joined in 1974 – the NASL – folded in 1984, despite an initial explosion of popularity and the importing of greatest-ever players like Pele, Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, and Eusebio.

The MLS went through a similar surge as well, most notably with David Beckham joining the L.A. Galaxy on a five-year, $32.5-million deal in 2007.

But Johnson doesn't see the MLS bottoming out like its bell bottom-era predecessor did.

"The requirements for ownership now are very rigid," he said. "There has to be some real deep pockets back in the team.

"They're not winging it anymore. There will always be the odd exception, but there is in the NHL, as well. I think the league is solid."

The Whitecaps have sold out every game this season, he says, bringing them closer to level with other well-supported clubs in the Pacific Northwest in Portland and Seattle.

"Their goal was to become one of the top 10 teams in the world, the Whitecaps, in 10 years," Johnson said.

While it's hard to imagine the Caps ever in the same conversation, internationally, as a team like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, or AC Milan, Johnson says he could see them as a comparable to clubs in the other European leagues, in Holland or France or Portugal.

But, either way, you've gotta love the positivity.

"They've got big, giant, high goals and if they make it halfway there, they'll be fine."

PHOTOS: 40th Anniversary – The 1974 Whitecaps squad is honoured in Vancouver, before the current team's game against the San Jose Earthquake on May 3, 2014. (Photo: Whitecaps FC)

Whitecaps 1974 team

Former Whitecaps star Glen Johnson still lives in the Vancouver area, in White Rock, B.C. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Glen Johnson

Vancouver Whitecaps player Glen Johnson (left) poses with Brazilian legend Pele, then with the New York Cosmos of the NASL. Johnson was honoured by the Whitecaps for their 40th anniversary match last Saturday, before Vancouver's game against the San Jose Earthquake. (Photo: Submitted by Glen Johnson)

Glen Johnson with Pele

Whitecaps striker Glen Johnson gets set to boot the ball during the team's inaugural season in 1974. (Photo: Submitted by Glen Johnson)

Whitecaps striker Glen Johnson

The Vancouver Whitecaps made Glen Johnson the club's first-ever signing in 1974, when he was 23 years old. (Photo: Submitted by Glen Johnson)

Glen Johnson in 1974

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