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Four decades after 1981 triumph, Sting look back at title with pride

The Sting delivered Chicago its first championship in 18 years and were the toast of a city starved for a winner.

Excited fans welcomed the Sting home after their 1981 championship.
Chicago Sun Times

When coach Willy Roy thinks about the Chicago Sting winning Soccer Bowl ’81, the first thing he recalls is the excitement of the city. After the Sting beat the world-famous New York Cosmos on Sept. 26, 1981, in Toronto for the North American Soccer League championship, they were greeted by throngs of excited fans at O’Hare Airport.

But to get home safely after their shootout victory following a scoreless draw, Roy and the Sting had to move quickly to escape the airport. On his way through the crowd, Roy hustled past one supporter who thought she deserved more time with the victorious coach.

‘‘Once everything settled, I came home. I got a phone call from my mom, and then she said to me: ‘What kind of son are you?’ And I said: ‘What the heck is she talking about?’ ’’ Roy recalled to the Sun-Times. ‘‘ ‘Well, I was in that line. You walked right by me and didn’t even say, ‘Hi, Mom.’ So I had to explain to my mom exactly what had happened.’’

Sunday marks the 40th anniversary of that triumph, which was the city’s first major championship since the Bears’ 1963 NFL title. Forty years later, the 1981 Sting still hold a place in the lore of a city that was starved for a winner and subsequently feted them with a parade after the championship.

With players such as Pato Margetic, Karl-Heinz Granitza, Arno Steffenhagen and Ingo Peter, the 1981 Sting weren’t just winners; they also were exciting. That wasn’t by accident.

‘‘It was a fun team to watch because it had fun players,’’ owner Lee Stern recently told the Sun-Times.

To win the 1981 championship, the Sting had to get by the Cosmos, the most prominent soccer team in U.S. history. Though Pele had retired, the Cosmos were still a formidable side, led by legendary firebrand Giorgio Chinaglia.

Yet the Sting were confident they could beat the Cosmos. More accurately, they were confident they could beat them again after sweeping them during the regular season. One of those victories was a famous 6-5 shootout triumph at Wrigley Field.

‘‘I think we had their number,’’ defender Derek Spalding recently told the Sun-Times. ‘‘That confidence was renewed. We had beaten them a couple of times. ‘We’re playing them again? Well, we’ve already beaten them. Let’s beat them again.’ That was the attitude.’’

Though the Soccer Bowl didn’t feature any goals until the shootout, the victory was just as sweet for the Sting. They had become champions and managed to get a traditional U.S. sports town fully behind a soccer team.

‘‘The way the city embraced this team was just absolutely outstanding,’’ Roy said.

That’s something Spalding remembers, too. He recalled how the indoor Sting would pack Chicago Stadium and the size of the crowds the outdoor team drew.

Beyond that, Spalding looks back on the championship with pride and said it meant a lot for his career.

‘‘Terrific players,’’ Spalding said. ‘‘It was great. It’s a part of your career you always look back and say, ‘That was the good old days.’ It was a wonderful time.’’

It definitely was wonderful for Stern.

‘‘It has a great meaning to me,’’ Stern said. ‘‘It meant that the players themselves were able to show the fans of Chicago what it means to be a champion.’’