In 1975 two soccer players arrived on these shores from foreign lands. One would go on to help lead the Mount Lebanon High School Blue Devils to the championship of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) championship. The other would go on to help lead the New York Cosmos to the North American Soccer League (NASL) championship. But only one is prominently featured in a documentary about a seminal moment in American soccer. Granted, I was only 10 and a relative unknown when I landed here from Ireland; Pelé, on the other hand, was 34 and the most recognizable name in sports when quixotic Warner Bros. boss Steve Ross lured him out of retirement in Brazil for a three-year, $4.5 million contract. Even so, we both had roughly the same effect on American soccer in the long run. That is to say, as anyone who witnessed our boys’ dismal showing in the World Cup already knows, not much.
This is sort of a problem for codirectors Paul Crowder and John Dower’s Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, a documentary done in the rockumentary style of Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants, both of which Crowder skillfully edited. Whereas those films — supported by electrifying visuals and soundtracks — genuinely rocked, with cool narratives about tectonic shifts not just in sports but in youth culture, Once in a Lifetime barely swings for a film that purports to be a “richly layered look at a time and a place that changed American sports forever.” It isn’t just because nothing much changed in American sports after the Cosmos — soccer B.C. and A.C. remains something that American kids love to play and American adults hate to watch on TV — but also because the source material comes with none of the inherent high stakes that made Z-Boys and Giants so compelling.
Though the movie promises a Behind the Music–type look at the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the Cosmos — a team (if the press notes are to be believed) overwhelmed by wealth, groupies, rivalry and power struggles — it all adds up to a tempest in a tea pot. We don’t see much of the wealth, perhaps because Pelé, who got the lion’s share of it, fails to show up in the film except in the scant and disappointing archival footage of the Cosmos in action. There aren’t any groupies to speak of, except for a lame aside about how a rival team sabotaged the Cosmos the night before a playoff game by sending some girls and Chivas Regal to distract Pelé and, if memory serves (I may have nodded off for a minute), the mercurial and exceptionally lethal striker Giorgio Chinaglia. Oh, and someone reminisces about witnessing two — not one, but two! — sex acts performed during the team’s flight to a Portland championship game.
Have these guys ever heard of the ’86 Mets?
Crowder and Dower, apparently desperate to graft some kind of dramatic arc onto this story, try to paint Chinaglia as the egotistical and manipulative courtier who got Ross’ ear and, for his own Machiavellian reasons, undid the team from the inside out. Chinaglia — the most compelling figure on the Cosmos because of his talent and brashness (“Give me the ball and I will score”) — is game for this conceit in his interviews, but this too feels contrived, since all Chinaglia did was come through in the clutch for the Cosmos time and time again. And besides, how undone did a team get that won five championships?
Whereas Z-Boys and Riding Giants told the stories of outsiders who risked life and limb to prove themselves against nature and class prejudices — and who really did change the face of American sports forever — Once in a Lifetime is about a brief gathering of high-paid superstars slumming it in America at the ego-driven whimsy of one of the world’s most powerful moguls (who himself had nothing to lose, since the whole venture was on Warner’s tab). The team’s only real struggle (the competition wasn’t much) was against the colossal indifference of the American TV-watching public, a losing battle that had far more to do with the end of the Cosmos and the NASL than did Giorgio Chinaglia or sex, drugs and rock & roll. But that doesn’t make for gripping narrative: It’s a scenario that’s riper for Christopher Guest–style parody than Behind the Music–type pathos.
At least Ross’ hilarious, shit-talking lieutenant, Warner Communications VP Jay Emmett, gets the joke, and Once in a Lifetime is most alive when he’s on camera, taking the piss out of the whole business, including the idea of doing a documentary about it all. In the end, the joke is: Who cares? The Cosmos, despite selling out a few games at Yankee Stadium in the late ’70s, were barely a hiccup in the history of the world’s most popular game. I and millions of other Americans played soccer before the Cosmos and kept playing long after. We just don’t watch it on TV.
ONCE IN A LIFETIME | Directed by PAUL CROWDER and JOHN DOWER | Produced by JOHN BATTSEK, FISHER STEVENS and TIM WILLIAMS | Released by Miramax Films | At Westside Pavilion