Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

on July 07, 2006 by Wade Major
One doesn't need to be a soccer fan suffering from post-World Cup withdrawals to be thoroughly engrossed by this sterling new documentary from Miramax and ESPN Original Entertainment. Though it centers on the rise and fall of its titular New York soccer club and the ill-fated North American Soccer League (NASL), "Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos" actually casts a much wider net, aiming to unravel the perplexing riddle of soccer's turbulent popularity in America as it lobs a fair number of critical grenades at the hubristic abuses of the media conglomerates who increasingly control every aspect of American professional sports.

When media mogul Steve Ross, head of Warner Communications, got bitten by the soccer bug in 1971, the sport had never been more popular overseas... or more invisible in the United States. It had been nearly two decades since soccer had any kind of American profile, though elsewhere in the world the phenomenon of Pele and other stars like Italy's Giorgio Chinaglia and German legend Franz Beckenbauer had elevated the sport to near religious status. But Ross and his partners, the Turkish-born Ertegun brothers of Atlantic Records fame, threw the full weight of their power and influence into realizing the idea that American could and would support soccer, if only it were sold the right way. To be sure, only visionaries or madmen could have looked at the ragtag collection of amateurs and their loose gaggle of fans, assembled in almost total anonymity on a remote, ratty field alongside a former asylum on Randall's Island, and imagined that in only a few years time the Cosmos would be signing the most legendary players in the world - including Pele, Chinaglia and Beckenbauer - and packing the newly-completed Giants Stadium with upwards of 70 thousand screaming fans.

How that dream was realized and what factors brought it and its league to a horrific crash scarcely a decade later is the intriguing drama that directors Paul Crowder and John Dower are able to reconstruct through the candid and sometimes contradictory recollections of nearly every key figure involved. Only the late Ross and Pele, who declined to be interviewed, are absent. Those looking for some really juicy dirt will get plenty of it here as the film exposes the excruciating details of Pele's clash with Chinaglia, and Chinaglia's subsequent Machiavellian machinations at taking control of the club itself. But at no point do Crowder and Dower lose sight of the broader picture of how corporate mismanagement, bad media deals and league overexpansion shafted the dreams and expectations of fans.

There's little doubt that the current Major League Soccer (MSL) is a healthier league than NASL ever was, but it's also a more modest endeavor whose very existence would not be possible had Ross, the Cosmos and the NASL not paved the way. Precisely how one weighs their mistakes against their successes, however, will be for fans and viewers to judge. Directed by Paul Crowder and John Dower. Written by John Dower. Produced by John Battsek, Fisher Stevens and Tim Williams. A Miramax release. Documentary. Rated PG-13 for language and some nudity. Running time: 97 min

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