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Once in a Lifetime

THE FILM: Once in a Lifetime: The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos

One of the most impressive achievements of this fascinating documentary, which charts the spectacular rise and fall of the New York Cosmos, once the most famous soccer team in America, is that it manages to be both genuinely insightful and captivating despite the two most important protagonists in the story being unavailable for comment.

Both Steve Ross, the man who through Warner Communications Inc. bankrolled the Cosmos through its halcyon days, and Pelé, the world's greatest player and the man charged with breaking the game in America, are both conspicuous by their absence. Sadly, Ross shuffled off this mortal coil in 1992, while Pelé declined the filmmakers' invitation to be interviewed.

This could have proved to be a insurmountable problem in the hands of lesser skilled directors than Paul Crowder and John Dower. However, without the input of either man, the accounts of whom would arguably have provided the definitive version of a remarkable story, we are instead offered a well-crafted film where opinion and conjecture add depth and intrigue.

Interviews with every other key figure involved in the turbulent life of the most famous North American Soccer League franchise are interwoven with newsreel footage and a superb soundtrack from the late 1970s to tell a story which at times beggars belief.

Misty eyed World Cup winners Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto affectionately recount their involvement with the Cosmos, while the irrepressible former Cosmos keeper Shep Messing waxes lyrical and belligerent star striker Giorgio Chinaglia shares his ego and bravado with entertaining results.

A variety of executives and businessmen are also on hand to air their views, not to mention long-held grudges, with former Warner president Jay Emmett proving to be a particularly forthright and engaging interviewee.

After a brief history of football, and a socio-political explanation as to why it never caught on in America, the film then chronicles the genesis of the Cosmos, from a distinctly ramshackle semi-professional outfit to one of the biggest sporting names in the US.

The film moves towards a rather melancholic conclusion after disarming viewers with a story of extraordinary success, complete with charming anecdotes, like how Pelé feared a fungal infection after his debut game only to learn the green blotches on his legs were, in fact, smears of paint used prior to kick-off to disguise deficiencies in the astroturf at the Cosmos' woefully inadequate Hofstra Stadium.

The high points of Cosmos history, including Pelé's arrival, various 'SoccerBowl' triumphs, record attendances at Giants Stadium, tales of champagne-fuelled celebration and partying at 'Studio 54' eventually give way to accounts of the greed, debauchery and selfishness which ultimately lead to the Cosmos' eventual implosion.

Told with good humour and no little affection 'Once in a Lifetime' offers a candid insight into the remarkable world of the Cosmos and is well worth an hour and half of your time.

THE BOOK: Once in a Lifetime: The Incredible Story of the New York Cosmos

Unlike most books connected to movies, Gavin Newsham's 'Once in a Lifetime' is not the source material for it's celluloid brother, but rather a companion piece fleshing out the themes of Crowder and Dower's documentary, using the opportunity of the written medium to add more detail and historical context.

The early part of the book is marked by some rather witty lines, like: 'He was the kind of intimidating opponent you wouldn't want to run into in a well-lit, heavily policed alleyway, let alone a dark one', though these seem to peter out and are non-existent beyond the middle of the book.

However, that minor criticism aside, Newsham's offering is a solid treatment of the Cosmos story providing some genuinely fascinating insights. If, for example, you want to know how E.T. and Atari contributed to the death of soccer in the US then look no further.

The life and death of the Cosmos can be seen as a cautionary tale for modern football, both in the US and across the world.

Parallels can easily be drawn between with Real Madrid's failed Galacticos experiment where the needs of the team and the opinion of coaches were marginalised in favour of signing superstars for marketing purposes.

At a time when David Beckham is preparing for his move stateside to fly the flag for soccer with the LA Galaxy, in much the same way Pelé did in the 1970s with the Cosmos, other MLS franchises would be well-advised to read Newsham's book, which shrewdly illustrates how keeping up with the Cosmos brought the NASL to it's knees.

  • Any comments? Email Phil Holland