They were legends and journeymen. They numbered World Cup winners Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto among their ranks, alongside local veterans like Shep Messing and Werner Roth. They raised soccer from the dead in the US and tried to break the stranglehold of gridiron, baseball and basketball on American minds and televisions. In one sense they failed, but 21 years after their demise, the New York Cosmos occupy a special place in sporting history. 'Once in a Lifetime' is their story - one of big business, sport and entertainment, where the power struggles and drama lasted far longer than 90 minutes.
Despite their victory over England in the 1950 World Cup, soccer was effectively a wasteland sport in the US by the 1960s. Two years after the 1966 World Cup final was televised in America, the North American Soccer League was created, and so began the often thankless task of raising the game's profile Stateside. NASL team the New York Cosmos were formed in 1971 and played their home games at Hofstra University in Long Island, where players and staff outnumbered fans in the stands. For a while.
But one man had a vision that soccer could be the next big game in the US: Steve Ross, the boss of media giant Warner Communications, who financed the Cosmos through the company. Within five years Pelé would be playing for them, followed by former team-mate Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and the Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia. By the summer of 1977, despite the fact that the New York Yankees were on their way to the World Series, the Cosmos were the biggest draw in the city. They went on to win the championship four times, but once the TV companies lost interest the North American Soccer League and the Cosmos' days were numbered.
While there have been a number of great sports documentaries in recent years - 'Hoop Dreams', 'When We Were Kings', 'Murderball' - soccer didn't got a look-in. 'Once in a Lifetime' more than makes up for the wait. With brilliant archive footage, no-punches-pulled interviews and a must-have soundtrack, it's a superbly paced evocation of an(other) era in US sport where colour, class and crass collided.
Directors Paul Crowder and John Dower also deserve huge credit for their decision not to let the film just be about the superstars. So you get Alberto and Beckenbauer alongside Roth and Messing, players who had been with the Cosmos from the bad old days – Messing even posing nude in a magazine because he thought it might drum up a bit of publicity for the team. The one person whose reminiscences are missing is Pelé, but team-mate Giorgio Chinaglia nearly makes up for his absence.
Described as the only player with the audacity to criticise Pelé's ability, Chinaglia scored 193 goals in 213 NASL games and could've launched his ego in the Hudson River with a bottle of champagne. The tit-for-tat interviews involving himself and other Cosmos personnel are hilarious and one of many reasons why 'Once in a Lifetime' is a film that even non-soccer devotees will enjoy.
As one interviewee puts it, the Cosmos were a circus that became a three-ring circus and then a 10-ring circus before the tent collapsed. But they are one of the reasons why an estimated 20m people now play soccer in the US. This film adds plenty to their legend and legacy. And, like all the best games, you never want it to end.