Saturday, July 4, 2015

Looking Back & Catching Up With Carmine Marcantonio

Marco in action against the Strikers, April, 1978.
“I wanted to be a professional footballer since the day I was born,” Carmine “Marco” Marcantonio recalls. “I like to say football and not soccer. What is known as football in America is really played with the hands.” The cordial, multilingual (he is fluent in five languages) Canadian Soccer Hall of Famer has always been frank when discussing the game, no matter what dialect he uses. On the eve of the 1980 season, when asked what type of team he would most like to play on, he answered, “one with honest and dedicated players.”

Rookie Year In Toronto

His career in the NASL began in 1976, when he played with the Toronto Metros-Croatia, winners of Soccer Bowl ’76. “It was a dream to win a professional championship.” It was with this team he picked up his nickname because his teammates thought his last name was too long. That season, Marco struck up a friendship with renowned Brazilian midfielder Ivair Ferreira. "In their home country, Pele was known as 'The King' and Ferreira was 'The Prince.' Ferreira was in the prime of his career. He took me under his wing and we became close friends. I was out with him the night I met my wife." A key member of that team was Portuguese great Eusebio, who was voted one of the 10 best footballers of the 20th century. 

Life As a Diplomat

Marco came to the Diplomats on March 6, 1978, when he joined the team for a pre-season tour on the west coast, and was signed soon after. His impact was immediate. The '78 Dips won their first 5 games and scored 11 goals in that span. The previous year the team only won ten games and scored thirty goals over the entire campaign. Just one month into the season, Donald Huff of the Washington Post wrote a feature story on Marco's value and primary contributions in that short period.

"Marcantonio has given the Dips the (midfield) stability and leadership the club hasn't seen in some time." For his part, Marco demonstrated his team-first attitude. "There are two kinds of players out there: those who score and receive all the glory and those who work to get the ball to them so they can score. I'm one of those who works to get the ball to someone."

Perhaps the biggest point of contention for Marcantonio in 1978 came via the equipment room. Rather than sewing his full last name on the back of his jersey, it had been condensed to M - TONIO. "I did not ask for that and really didn't like it. I would have preferred if they used my nickname, Marco. In 1979 and 1980 I asked them to restore my full name, which the team did."

The '78 & '79 Dips were as skilled in the pub as they were on the pitch. Paul Cannell and Jim Steele could party all night and play everyday (sounds like a KISS song). Marco looks back fondly at their zest for life. "Paul would do something crazy all the time. He gave it all he had on the field, 100% effort, along with Jimmy (Steele). Paul was one of the better headers and a very colorful and good teammate."

He pauses for a moment to reflect and then chuckles. "Paul and Steely, you never knew how they were going to show up for practice. With Jimmy, he would go puke in the wash room area in the middle of practice. They are both still very dear in my heart. Both of them were like George Best, lived life to its fullest. They were nice men and teammates." Marco himself was not into the bar scene. "I tried religiously to do the things I thought a professional athlete should do...eat right, not overdue nightlife."

1980 Season

After getting knocked out in the first round of the 1979 NASL playoffs, majority owner Sonny Werblin felt the team, "needed a Joe Namath, so he signed Cruyff," Marco states when asked about the 1980 season. "The Dips took on another dimension when they signed Johan. With him we were now major league. It was a pleasure playing with someone of that stature, but I had played with Eusebio, so it was not the first time I had played with a big name player."

Cruyff & Marco, 1980.
The ups, downs and turmoil of Washington soccer that summer have been well documented. Cruyff and Head Coach Gordon Bradley bickered most of the season and the team never realized its full potential.

Marcantonio recalls strife right from the start. "Johan hurt his knee in our first game (in Tampa) and then badly hurt his foot in our second game at Tulsa. It was like going to hell to play in Tulsa because of the narrow field (only 60 yards wide) and being up against the wall on the sideline."

"Johan was playing hurt all throughout the beginning of the season and the expectations were very high." After 10 games, the Dips had a record of 3-7 and seemed to lack any direction or offensive punch. Something had to be done to salvage the season. Marco says that something was a meeting of the minds.

"Bradley did not try to sit down with Johan and pick his brain." In other words, Cruyff felt dissed. "Joe Mallet (assistant coach) was Bradley's mentor, the wise old man. Mallet finally had the two sit down and work out the British system and the Dutch system of 'total soccer.' When we went more with the Cruyff system we went on a run and had a great time." The Dips won six straight, outscoring opponents 22-7 during that span.

Next post, Marco Part II.

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