Once in a Lifetime

Hard as it is to fathom today, for a brief, shining moment soccer was the height of chic in New York City in the 1970s. In the era of Studio 54 and disco, the New York Cosmos soccer team packed crowds of more than 77,000 into Giants Stadium and kick-started a veritable footie boom. But the buzz was fleeting, lasting only a few years before the entire North American Soccer League collapsed in the mid-'80s due to mismanagement and waning public interest. This rollicking sports doc examines the Cosmos' unlikely rise to fame and their inevitable crash and burn.

At the beginning of the '70s, the world's favorite game had almost zero presence in the States, and the North American Soccer League was floundering. Teams played on shoddy fields with few fans and meager salaries; times were so rough that Cosmos goaltender Shep Messing actually posed for a nudie magazine to make some extra cash, and the dilapidated field had to be spray painted green.

Enter Steve Ross, maverick chairman of media juggernaut Warner Communications and thrill-seeking playboy. A rabid sports fan, Ross was itching to add a major league sports franchise to his ledger of holdings, and in 1971 he bought the Cosmos, and busted out the corporate checkbook to entice the world's most famous player, the legendary Pelé, to join the team. (The various players, coaches and team officials interviewed estimate his salary was as high as $6 million, a staggering sum at the time.) The arrival of Pelé led to a flood of international superstars coming to America, and soon the Cosmos had nabbed such big-time players as Franz Beckenbauer and the high-scoring hothead Giorgio Chinaglia. These newcomers drew a flurry of attention and badly needed energy to the States, but they also brought their plus-size egos and destructive appetites.

As one point the Cosmos became so popular that Mick Jagger was popping up in their locker room. Player accounts of hard partying and skirt-chasing seem sort of tame compared to today's athletic shenanigans, and much of it comes off as exaggeration and hype. Attempts are made to put the Cosmos' collapse in context with soccer's overall failure to catch on domestically, but the filmmakers are clearly more interested in simply reliving the party.

Co-directors Paul Crowder and John Dower do a nice job of capturing the excitement of the period, with glossy retro graphics and a booming sound track that grooves to the funky sounds of the era. They also revel in the gossipy aspect of the tale, with all the principals disagreeing on just about every detail and cattily sniping at each other. While it's certainly fun to watch at times, the film leaves you with the feeling that you had to be there to understand what the fuss was all about.


Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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