TAMPA — Before the Bucs, Rays and Lightning, Tampa Bay's first professional sports rivalry was born.
Thirty-six years ago, the first-year Tampa Bay Rowdies traveled south to the Orange Bowl for their first meeting with the Miami Toros.
The Toros reached the NASL title game the year before, and the Rowdies would go on to win the league championship in their inaugural year. And on that day — June 5, 1975 — four minutes into the game, a bench-clearing brawl ensued. That prompted a soccer rivalry between Tampa Bay and South Florida — the Toros two years later became the Fort Lauderdale Strikers — that still lives.
Tonight at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, FC Tampa Bay, which is the reincarnation of the Rowdies in all but name down to the green and gold striped socks, will host the Strikers — renamed this offseason from Miami FC — as members of the new NASL for the first time for Tampa Bay's annual Fourth of July game.
But to truly grasp the intensity between the Rowdies and Strikers, you have to go back to that first meeting between Tampa Bay and the Toros. The game was for first place in the Eastern Division. The more than 14,000 fans became raucous when Rowdies midfielder Mark Lindsay and Miami forward Esteban Aranguiz tussled just in front of the Tampa Bay goal.
It was reported that Aranguiz had kicked Rowdies defender John Boyle in the groin on the ground after they went for a 50-50 ball. Lindsay responded, initiating a full-scale fight that members of that first Rowdies team remember vividly.
"We had an unwritten rule at the time that if any one of our players was involved in an altercation it was all for one, one for all mentality," former Rowdies defender Farrukh Quraishi said. "It was an all-out brawl. From that point on, it was always a big game. It was a clash of cultures. It was a clash of styles. It was an interstate rivalry."
The Rowdies won 1-0, but not before they were pelted with rocks thrown from the stands. A week later, Miami came to Tampa Bay and left with a 2-0 win.
Over the years, after the Toros turned into the Strikers, the rivalry grew. Fort Lauderdale's roster had a Latin American flair, while most of Tampa Bay's team had European roots. Moreover, they were two of the NASL's top entries annually. Games would be broadcast on TV nationally. They stood in each other's way en route to Soccer Bowl, the league's championship game.
"Every game we played was like a war," former Rowdie Mike Connell said. "It was like the Yankees-Mets, Florida-Miami (college football). The only red card I ever got was against Fort Lauderdale. I don't remember what Thomas Rongen did, but I must have run 30 yards to kick him."
In 1978, the Rowdies beat Fort Lauderdale to advance to the Soccer Bowl then earned a repeat trip in '79. The Strikers played in the 1980 Soccer Bowl.
"You would hate to see them in the Soccer Bowl, and they'd hate to see us there," Connell said.
Rowdies striker Rodney Marsh and Fort Lauderdale midfielder Roy Hudson later served as catalysts, inciting opponents and fans with trash talk through the media. Both Englishmen backed it up on the field.
"Rodney was always very media savvy," former Rowdies goalkeeper Winston Dubose said. "He always got our fans fired up and the players fired up because we had to back up what he said."
Proximity also played a role. The cities were close enough that fan groups from each team would travel.
"When Fort Lauderdale came to Tampa Stadium, there were three sections for the Striker Hikers," former Rowdie Perry Van Der Beck said. "You'd come on the field and you weren't used to that. When any other team came into town, you'd have nothing but Rowdies fans."
Even after the demise of the original NASL in 1984, the rivalry continued in the APSL into the mid '90s. And now, while the crowds and atmosphere might not compare to years past, when Tampa Stadium drew an average of 28,000 for games in the early '80s, the rivalry still exists. The clubs play in the current NASL for the Coastal Cup trophy, which goes to the annual series winner.
Said Quraishi: "I think those rivalries can still exist. I think it takes time. It needs a catalyst. The game is played a little differently, too. You had a lot more individual playing back then. It's a different era. They've outlawed a lot of the tackling we used to be able to make. The rules of the game have restricted some of that."
But even Van Der Beck, now Tampa Bay's executive vice president, said those times hold a special place that can't be duplicated.
"I think it was a different time," he said. "The game was different. I think in my eyes the rivalry still continues."