ONCE IN A LIFETIME: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF THE NEW YORK COSMOS

PG-13
Reviews

It may be hard to remember at this point, but during the 1960s and '70s, many Americans barely knew what soccer was, much less how it was played. Steve Ross wanted to change all that-and did so, even if he ultimately failed in making soccer another mainstream success like pro football or basketball. In the documentary Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, co-directors Paul Crowder and John Dower tell the story of how Ross, the ebullient Warner Communications media tycoon and gadfly, decided that soccer was going to be the next big sport, and went about creating a team to make that happen.

When Ross, dubbed in the film the "Godfather of American Soccer," decided to get involved in his new side career of messianic sports promoter in the late 1960s, the North American Soccer League was on life support: a dismal collection of five teams playing an unknown sport to a few hundred fans each game. In 1971, Ross, along with Atlantic Records executives Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun, founded the New York Cosmos, who, although they'd later become the Yankees of American soccer, started out as a ragtag band of misfit part-timers who kept part-time jobs, practiced a couple times a week and played on a grim, broken-glass-covered field under an overpass on Randall's Island.

Everything changed in 1975, when the Cosmos hunted down soccer's living legend, Pelé, and used every means at their disposal to lure the national treasure away from his home country of Brazil. These lures included not just millions of dollars and the promise of lucrative cross-promotion in Ross' media empire, but also going so far as to enlist Henry Kissinger (who appears in the film) in the effort. Once Pelé is onboard with the Cosmos, the film hits a pulse-pounding momentum, tracking the team's meteoric ascendancy in popularity and media attention-one thing the filmmakers illustrate superbly is how inextricably linked those two things are. Year after year, the team brings on international superstars, like a soccer version of the Yankees, paying any money to capture the big names. The Cosmos played to bigger and bigger audiences, moving in 1977 to massive Giants Stadium, which they were soon regularly selling out.

According to Once in a Lifetime, the popping of the soccer bubble (the team and league dissolved in 1984) was due to many factors: a thin American talent pool, too many other competing sports, overexpansion and dilution of the league, the collapse of Warner's empire in the early '80s, the 600-lb. gorilla that was the Cosmos, and ABC's overeager start into broadcasting games in their entirety. One salient point made by the film is the enormity of the hurdle faced by the sport in attracting an American audience, who had (and still do have) a difficult time getting used to such a long and fluid game played without the artificial breaks utilized in all other pro sports. All these reasons are argued over in very entertaining fashion by the interviewees. As Warner VP Jay Emmett (an engagingly Robert Evans-like old-Hollywood biz type) puts it: "You know this is going to be like Rashomon, right?"

Crowder and Dower start things off at a fevered pitch and keep things there for nearly all the film's jam-packed running time. Set to a pounding beat of date-appropriate funk and pop music, and dazzled up with period graphics, the film has hooks aplenty and an infectious energy that should guarantee good word of mouth from audiences looking for an upbeat summer sports tale.

-Chris Barsanti