I am avid watcher of documentary films. Whether it be PBS’ American Experience series, Errol Morris’ Fog of War, or anything done by Ken Burns, I enjoy a well done documentary probably more than I enjoy a fictional movie.
Through the years however, sports documentaries have tended to be subpar works. Either they are too narrative or too analytical, but never the right dose of both. That is until Miramax Films in conjunction ESPN Original Entertainment, released Once in a Lifetime, which debuted here in South Florida last week.
Once in a Lifetime is the story of the New York Cosmos, the giant club of the now defunct North American Soccer League (NASL). Growing up in Broward County, I was a Fort Lauderdale Striker liker, and actually served as a Striker ball boy for a match versus the Cosmos in 1983. Beginning in the 1980 my parents took my every Striker-Cosmos game we hosted at Lockhart Stadium, so I must admit I was eagerly looking forward to this film.
The film begins somewhat slowly with a narrative history of the pathetic state of soccer in the US and the origins of the NASL, which was for all intents and purposes a sub professional league. But the story and film pick up when Steve Ross, head of Warner Communications and the biggest international media mogul of the 1970s bought the Cosmos in 1973. From this point in the film forward the character development is outstanding, and the filmmakers make a deliberate attempt to arouse controversy by asking provocative questions and pointing out differences in the recollections of the major players involved.
When Pele’ shocked the world in 1975 and signed with the Cosmos, after turning down Real Madrid and Juventus, the NASL went from being essentially a semi-pro league to a big time international first division. The courting and signing of Pele’ by Ross and the Warner Communications team is portrayed in riveting fashion by the filmmakers.
After the signing of Georgia Chinaglia in 1976 the film much like the Cosmos took a turn into the risque and shady side. Chinaglia and Pele showed up for a playoff match against Tampa Bay famously hung over and the Cosmos were eliminated from the playoffs by a 3 to 1 score. By this time the Cosmos were regulars at Studio 54 and were drawing huge crowds both at home and on the road. In 1977, the Cosmos bought several top foreign stars and became the predecessor of today’s Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona teams. In those days even the top European clubs were largely national clubs with very few foreign players.
The NASL then went through a proliferation of purchasing foreign stars, most of whom commanded high salaries despite being well past their prime. This helped to eventually seal the fate of the league, but not before a lifetime of memories were formed. Georgia Chinaglia becomes the focus of the film at this point since his meddling in the Cosmos front office and his unwillingness to work with others contributed to the downfall of the entire league. Nonetheless the seeds had been sown to hook a generation of youngsters on the game, a generation whose parents did not even know what soccer was.