Pele in the Seventies

Documentary Spotlight: Once in a Lifetime, The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

Soccer may be the world’s most popular spectator sport, but it always had a dickens of a time establishing itself as more than a niche attraction in the United States. In recent years that has changed a bit with the localized success of many Major League Soccer franchises. But for a brief shining moment in the mid to late 1970s, it seemed like the sport was set to go gangbusters. In maneuverings that reached all the way to the White House, the New York Cosmos of the struggling North American Soccer League secured the services of Pele, the world’s reigning futbol superstar, for a reported (and then-unheard-of) $5 million for three years. A gaggle of top international players soon followed, and for the next few years the Cosmos were the toast of the city, selling out Giants Stadium, hobnobbing with stars of stage and screen, and achieving VIP status at Studio 54 at the height of the freewheeling disco era. The fact that the team’s towering success soon collapsed under the weight of its own excesses and mismanagement gives it a classic story arc that should appeal to a larger audience than its core constituency of soccer fans. Once in a Lifetime is as light on its feet as the great man himself: moving this tall tale forward with zippy editing and bemused good humor, providing some classic game highlights, and setting it all to an ingeniously chosen soundtrack of period R&B, rock, and dance music.

All this would not have been possible if not for the curious devotion to soccer of Warner Communications CEO Steve Ross. With a plate already filled with his company’s movie, music, and TV interests, Ross in 1971 threw himself headlong into the role of team owner and had Atlantic Records legend Ahmet Ertegun and his brother running day-to-day operations. In an amusing call-and-response of competing recollections, the since-deceased Ertegun, Warner VP Jay Emmett, Cosmos general manager Clive Toye, and others rehash the tactics used to try and cajole the semi-retired Pele away from Brazil to play for a team that couldn’t claim a permanent home venue. The Brazilian government had by that time designated Pele as a “national treasure,” and the Cosmos ended up needing the help of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had played the game as a youngster back in his native Germany, to convince officials in Brasilia that it would be a boon for relations between the two countries.

The directors spend close to a third of the film on the pursuit and eventual arrival of Pele in 1975, but it is time well spent as it’s impossible to imagine anything as loosey-goosey happening with today’s media-savvy sports franchises. Before Pele, the most press “exposure” the Cosmos got was when goalkeeper Shep Messing posed nude for Viva magazine; now the international spotlight was suddenly thrust upon this ragtag group of semi-pros. Recovered period footage reveals the strange sight of history’s most famous soccer player, star of three winning World Cup teams, being escorted to Randall’s Island in the East River, where bald patches on the field of ramshackle Downey Stadium had been covered with green spray paint. But Pele played the part of the good trooper, and Steve Ross’s checkbook remained open to import a bevy of overseas stars. Other teams followed suit, leading to a league top-heavy with talent that was able to draw big crowds—for a time, anyway.


Pele lining up in front of his teammate/nemesis Giorgio Chinaglia.

Pele, who declined to be interviewed, remains a legendary presence in Once in a Lifetime. But Crowder and Dower bag a lot of the Cosmos’ big names: Franz Beckenbauer, the stolid captain of a West German World Cup winner; Pele’s Brazilian national side teammate Carlos Alberto; and the flamboyant, high-scoring Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia. It is Chinaglia who nearly steals the film (a montage of his vainglorious goal celebrations is one of the best things in it) and is unapologetic as the ingratiating schemer who got under the skin of the emotional Pele. When the Brazilian left after his three-year contract—characteristically, he went out as a champion—Chinaglia nearly hijacked the franchise, attaching himself to Steve Ross, getting coaches fired, and nearly running the club from his locker, where he kept his ever-present bottle of Chivas Regal.


Chinaglia celebrates the wonder of himself after scoring in inclement weather.

Although this Wild West atmosphere played a part in the league’s ignominious folding in 1984, the directors take pains to show that the groundwork had been laid for future successes. Although the free-flowing, low-scoring game remains a tough sell with many Americans, they point to the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 1994 (a dream of Ross’, though he died in 1992) and the establishment of the NASL’s better-adjusted successor, Major League Soccer. Of course, the glittery temptations of yore have not been totally denied—witness the MSL’s spike in attendance when modern-day icon David Beckham signed with their Los Angeles team in 2007.

(True-blue soccer buffs will want to get the DVD version that as an extra feature shows extended highlights of three matches broadcast by ABC Sports. The first is Pele’s 1977 farewell game where he scores on a howitzer of a free kick after backing up about eight paces. The other two are championship games featuring the post-Pele Cosmos: the 1980 and ’81 Soccer Bowl ).