“It was a happening, it was an event, it was unprecedented.” So begins the story of the New York Cosmos, as assembled by Paul Crowder and John Dower. The opening of Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos in New York on the weekend of the 2006 World Cup Finals seems premised on a mix of logic and illogic. Appealing to viewers likely otherwise engaged, it also solicits fans hungering for more. And Once in a Lifetime delivers that, in the form of an adoring, bright-lighted look back at a brief moment when world football was popular in the States.
As U.S. sports culture is built on celebrity, whether understood in collective or individual terms, it’s unsurprising that soccer’s few minutes had to do with a convergence of stars. For a couple of seasons, the Cosmos, New York City’s brilliant pastiche of superstar talent from around the world, was brilliant: good fun, great partiers, phenomenal players. While Once in a Lifetime, narrated by Matt Dillon, makes a good case for its title, it also holds out promise that one day, soccer might again rise to commercial prominence in the States. Unlikely as that seems right now, it was even more unlikely back in the day.
This day begins and ends with Pelé. Of course there are visionaries and moneymen involved as well, but the possibility of soccer in the States depended on a much-publicized, long-sought, very expensive two-year commitment from the most charismatic star of the ’60s and ’70s. The Cosmos was conjured by Warner Communications entrepreneur Steve Ross as a means to bring soccer to across the pond. A lover of “all sports,” Ross figured he could convince his fellow citizens of the beauty he found in this most “operatic” of games. Though common wisdom has it that “Americans don’t have the attention span” to follow a sport that doesn’t grant commercial/bathroom/beer breaks, that consists of “free-flowing and continuous” action. Or if not the beauty, at least the competitive edge and athleticism, as well as attendant ticket, gear, and tie-in product purchases.
Ross’ efforts — along with Atlantic Records executives Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun — helped to resurrect the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1971. The pursuit of Pelé, culminating in his signing in 1975, provided a model for other teams to contract international names. The Cosmos offered all kinds of money, attention, and promises; at a time when Hank Aaron was earning $200,000 a season, Pelé — officially retired from football in Brazil — made something like $4.5 million for two. Despite the Brazilian president’s appeal to keep hold of their “national treasure,” the three-time World Cup winner couldn’t say no, especially when Henry Kissinger weighed in, supporting the purchase; he appears in his current form as well, remembering his crucial part in the negotiations. (Though many of the Cosmos players appear in the film, Pelé is conspicuously absent, reportedly because he’s contracted for another film.)
The then 34-year-old Pelé’s first game with the Cosmos was played in their first “home,” a field beneath an overpass on Randall’s Island. The star complained of the green stains he incurred, only to be told that the turf had been painted green in order to look good on television (the team eventually moved to Giants Stadium while awaiting the construction of a field of its own, and did sell out the gargantuan site more than once). Like any major league sport, stateside soccer’s fate was tied up with TV, and the backers arranged at least tentative affiliations with networks and advertisers. That first game was broadcast by a less than enthusiastic CBS, and the movie makes the case that the sport was neglected ever after by TV, which showed no sustained interest and mounted no serious campaign to make the business go. (This despite efforts on the parts of some players to “help” promote the cause, most notoriously, goalie Shep Messing’s nude centerfold — a decision he recalls as “Everybody Plays the Fool” lilts is on the background soundtrack).
The film’s argument concerning the lack of network support seems plausible to a point — nothing in the U.S. goes without the engine of TV — but other factors contributed. One of the more colorful villains of this piece is Giorgio Chinaglia, currently a commentator for ESPN’s World Cup coverage. Large, skilled, and self-loving, the Italian striker Chinaglia was determined not to be overshadowed by the fading Pelé, though he lacked the Brazilian’s singular charisma (this testified to by several commentators, one of whom calling striker a “very disagreeable fellow,” clearly still angry that he headed a group who bought the team during its swift decline)
The two stars argued over game strategies and dominance on the team: one interviewee recalls Pelé telling Chinaglia, “You shoot from no fucking angle,” at which point today’s Chinaglia insists, “I am Chinaglia. If I shoot from some place, it’s because I can score from that place.” As the Cosmos added still more stars to their roster — including Franz Beckenbauer, whose arrival is marked on the soundtrack by “The Ride of the Valkyries,” and Carlos Alberto — such clashes continued, though Alberto was hired in part because he could help pull the team together. Pelé was done after 1977 anyway, and the team persisted through 1984, though it gained its peak average attendance numbers in 1978.
Once in a Lifetime makes the most of its mostly late ’70s frame, with clips of the players partying at Studio 54, well-known soundtrack choices (ranging from disco to Steely Dan), and vibrant pop-arty imagery and intertitles. Though its representation of events is hardly “objective” (how could it be?), the film’s enthusiasm is seductive. Whether or not the “dream” of a thriving U.S. soccer league might ever be realized, this moment retains a thrilling illogic and undeniable energy.
Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos – Trailer