Once In A Lifetime

Director    Paul Crowder, John Dower
Starring    Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, Rodney Marsh
4 stars


30th September 2006

It's no surprise why 'soccer' never really took off in the States; sitting through an hour and half of near-uninterrupted action is like Chinese water torture for a nation raised on sports peppered with time-outs, game-breaks and 'a short word from our sponsors.' They'd much rather get their kicks from their own brand of football, watching hollering musclemen dressed as refrigerators advance on the opposition at the rate of a yard a minute ("It's just futuristic rugby," summed up Britain's own Alan Partridge). However, for a short period in the 1970's, soccer really was considered to be the sport of the future, with the success of the NASL (National American Soccer League) and its star-studded flagship team, the New York Cosmos. This film from the makers of the fantastic Britpop documentary Live Forever tells of the incredible rise and fall of the Cosmos, how they lured the biggest stars to their locker room, and how the most powerful nation in the world ever-so-briefly fell in love with the beautiful game.

Back in the early seventies, America was still having trouble coming to terms with this funny little sport called soccer, despite the rest of the world proclaiming it to be the pastime of kings. One fan was Warner Communications CEO Steve Ross, who had a dream of building up a soccer franchise that could rival the big names of the NFL and the American baseball leagues. The NASL was being played on crud-ridden pitches with zero attendance when Ross and General Manager Clive Toye formed the New York Cosmos, a team created in order to bring the game a wider audience in the nation's capital. Ross, an astute businessman, realised that people didn't pay money to watch a team of eleven no-marks kick a pigskin around, and pulling all of his political and personal strings, managed to land the biggest fish of all, one Edson Arantos do Nascimento. Pel''s arrival grabbed the attention of the world's media; others followed suit and before long, American soccer had been dragged out from the doldrums.

Of course, it didn't last. When the armchair-bound citizens of America bored of the NASL and the sport lost its televised audience, the league eventually folded, with the Cosmos following suit shortly afterwards - it took an entire generation before America finally caught up to speed with the rest of the world. Far more interesting than the action on the pitch was the back-room bitching, with a jovial cast of characters all telling their own versions of events. As in Live Forever, writer and co-director John Dower has a wonderful way of getting the best out of his talking heads; participants range from former players, backroom staff and media moguls of the day - even former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a big fan of the Cosmos, has stories to tell. In fact, the only big name who chose not to appear was the mighty Pel' himself, his reasons alluded to with a timely 'kerching' sound effect in the closing credits. He's far from the villain of the piece, however: Italian import Giorgio Chinaglia, now a balding, bankrupt entrepreneur who speaks with a Welsh accent, was then a long-haired primadonna striker, who constantly fought with Pel', cosied up to owner Ross and eventually took control of the team itself when all else had jumped ship. The one thing the rest of the Cosmos staff agree on is that Giorgio was, and is, an asshole.

Shot with confidence and grace (and an obvious love of the game), Once In A Lifetime isn't necessarily for football fans only. Cut to a barnstorming 70's soundtrack, it documents how the stars of the Cosmos became celebrities in their own right; players were regulars at debauched club Studio 54, hobnobbed with the stars and got up to all sorts of mischief when the team went on a European tour. Some of it sounds too ridiculous to be true, but you couldn't make this stuff up; security was called to remove a skinny, drugged up man from the team's locker room, only for them to discover it was Mick Jagger paying them a visit. Their actions on the pitch might have suffered as a consequence of their partying (Rodney Marsh, playing for rivals Tampa Bay, arranged for a limo full of girls and booze to pick up Pel' and Chinaglia at the airport - the pair played a shocker the next morning) but the stock footage used is simply marvellous. Even though many of the players were well past their best, they still managed to run rings around their opponents and injected the sport with a much-needed sense of showmanship and flair; compared to the theatrics of the modern game, it's a joy to see players take such delight in their football as they did back in the day.

Once In A Lifetime resists the temptation to point and laugh, and paints an affectionate picture of a country trying to come to terms with a sport it simply didn't understand. Much maligned in the past, soccer in America now thrives, with 18 million youngsters playing the game in schools, a healthy national league and a national team who've qualified for every World Cup since 1990 (which is more than you can say for us). They even had a few smart ideas of their own, including the elimination of tied games and the introduction of a climactic one-on-one shoot-out to determine the winner; a method stars like Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto swear to this day made the game more enjoyable for both players and supporters. Maybe those Yanks aren't as dumb as they look.

Once In A Lifetime is out now on DVD

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