If you’re a soccer fan still looking for a way to get the poisonous image of Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt out of your mind, the solution may have arrived in the form of a new documentary. Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos tells the story of soccer’s arrival in the United States in the late 1970s, when media mogul Steve Ross set out to make the “the beautiful game” a national phenomenon.
The film opens today at the Lumiere Theater in San Francisco. It’s as yet unclear whether it will come to the East Bay, so the Lumiere engagement may be the only chance to see it before it goes to DVD.
In the mid 1970s, Ross and a few partners created the North American Soccer League. At the time, soccer was a virtually unknown sport in America, and there wasn’t a single player of professional caliber in the country.
They knew they’d need a successful franchise in New York in order to get the league off the ground, and to make that franchise successful they would need to attract a marquee name.
As fate would have it, the greatest player to ever play the game, the Brazillian legend Pelé—winner of a record three World Cup championships—had just announced his retirement from Santos, the Brazillian league team where he had spent his entire career. After tense negotiations, they managed to lure Pelé to the New York Cosmos, telling him that if he chose to play for a European team all he could win was another championship, whereas if he played for the Cosmos he could win an entire country.
Pelé took the offer and began a second career, which continues to this day, as the game’s greatest ambassador, using his charm, charisma and unparalleled skills to spread the gospel of football.
What ensued was a circus of soccer, media relations and mayhem that consumed the city of New York and took the world of American sports by storm for several years. The documentary features interviews will the major players in this drama (with the notable exception of Pelé himself), and while some—the less talented American players, at least—are humble and good-natured and still thrilled to have been a part of history and to have shared the field with the great Pelé, it would seem that several others have managed to transfer their competitive energies from the playing field to the pages of history as each tries to put his own particular stamp on the story of the Cosmos.
This is not a calm, dignified documentary of talking heads respectfully and calmly stating the facts; these are men with axes to grind, and it makes for compelling viewing.
The story that emerges is one of great drama, great humor, and great potential gone unmet. For the Cosmos, and the North American Soccer League along with it, eventually imploded. The last straw was Ross’ unsuccessful bid to bring the 1986 World Cup to America. When FIFA, soccer’s governing body, instead awarded the tournament to Mexico, NASL and Cosmos executives felt it was a death knell for the game in America, a missed opportunity for FIFA to open up the game’s only remaining unconquered market.
In the wake of FIFA’s decision, the NASL folded and the tremendous inroads made by Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and the rest of the New York Cosmos vanished in the dust.
Just a few years later the United States would qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years, making a respectable showing at the 1990 tournament in Italy. And in 1994, the World Cup finally made it to America, paving the way for the founding of a new league, Major League Soccer. But the momentum had been lost; soccer is still touted in America more for its potential rather than its achievements. It’s an ongoing battle, a struggle to instill within a largely indifferent public the excitement and drama that swelled to a crescendo for a brief, glorious moment in the summer of 1977.
Once in a Lifetime:
The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos
Directed by Paul Crowder and John Dower. Featuring Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Henry Kissinger, Mia Hamm. Narrated by Matt Dillon.
Starts today at the Lumiere Theater, 1572 California St. at Polk Street, San Francisco.