With the World Cup on some of our minds, the time is right for Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, an enlightening look back at how "the world's sport" briefly took off in the US. The charge was led by Warner Communications chief Steve Ross, who invested heavily in the fledgling New York Cosmos, a soccer (a.k.a. football) club that Tampa Bay Rowdies striker Rodney Marsh describes as "the best and worst of what soccer in America was."
The best was a celebration of the uniquely free-flowing sport and its greatest international practicioners; the worst was the runaway North American corporate mindset that lacked all perspective. Under Ross' regime, Warner lured Brazilian soccer legend Pelé and, in 1975, made him the highest-salaried athlete in the world (with a three-year contract in the neighborhood of $4.5 million). Pelé refused to participate in the film, but his agent Rose Ganguzza sagely notes, "That's very much the American mentality—if we can't create it, we can assume it—because at the end of the day, it's all about money."
More talent poaching would follow, and soon the Cosmos moved from their dingy Downing Stadium field, which had to be painted green, to Giants Stadium and sellout crowds. The crash was as steep as the ascent: in the mid-'80s, the team and then the league dissolved, leaving the national soccer team the only high-profile outlet for U.S. soccer play.
Directed by Paul Crowder, who edited Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants, Once in a Lifetime employs the hyperactive moving visuals and split screens familiar from those Stacy Peralta docs. Crowder assembles interviews with most of the principal figures of the Cosmos era (the late Ross' son must speak for him) and luminaries including Marv Albert, New York Post sportswriter Phil Mushnick, Ed Koch, and Henry Kissinger, whose pull helped to seal the Pelé deal.
Once in a Lifetime isn't shy about taking its shots. Italian star (and egomaniac) Giorgio Chinaglia takes it on the chin from pretty much every interview subject but himself. Though Chinaglia probably deserves blame for allegedly running a Machiavellian "shadow government" within the organization, the Cosmos and the North American Soccer League took their biggest blow when they failed to generate TV ratings. This apparent waning of interest on the part of the American people is a lingering PR problem the film evidently hopes to remedy.