Film Reviews

Once In A Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos Paul Crowder & John Dower

Rating - 7/10

In the wake of media hysteria over David Beckham's estimated £128million transfer from arguably the most prestigious club side in the world to MLS outfit Los Angeles Galaxy, it's easy to forget that this is by no means the first time that the mighty dollar has lured a global football star to the States.

This lively documentary film, originally released last year and now available on DVD, offers a unique insight into the even madder days of the North American Soccer League and the New York Cosmos, who in the late seventies and early eighties invented the whole galactico concept.

The Cosmos was undoubtedly the glamour franchise of the NASL in its hey day and Once In A Lifetime follows the club from its humble beginnings, with a tight knit group of enthusiastic semi-pros, playing on pitches littered with broken glass, to its mid seventies explosion and later, its inevitable decline. This of course makes for a rather neat narrative arc, which the filmmakers follow conveniently.

Few could argue that the big money signing of Pelé in 1975 was the catalyst for the club's move into the mainstream, and as such a large proportion of the film's 93 minute running time is dedicated to this. The details and origins of the actual deal are actually quite sketchy, with every living Cosmos associate having a different take on events - and usually one which exaggerates their own role in the saga - however it is fascinating to see how the soccer-sceptical US sports media reacted at the time. This section of the film in particular suffers slightly due to Pelé's refusal to be interviewed for the film, although the archive footage gives the impression that his motives for the move - large sums of money and the chance to conquer football's last frontier - are remarkable similar to those offered by Beckham today.

Every custom built dream team has its multi-millionaire financier and the Cosmos was no different. The charismatic CEO of Warner Communications, Steve Ross, had backed the project from the beginning and bankrolled the Pelé transfer. Spurred on no doubt by the overwhelming impact of Pelé's arrival - the average Cosmos attendance tripled in his first season - Ross was clearly hungry for more, and in 1976 a charismatic yet slightly unhinged Italian by the name of Giorgio Chinaglia arrived in the Big Apple becoming the team's second major overseas star. At the age of 29, Chinaglia was also in the prime of his career, and he subsequently went on to become the NASL's all time leading scorer.

Unlike Pelé, Chinaglia does contribute to Once In A Lifetime and is the source of much of the films humour, particularly when talking about his Brazilian team-mate with whom he did clearly not get along with. Indeed, he apparently reduced the great number 10 to tears in one dressing room argument. Chinaglia is involved in a great deal of the mythology behind the Cosmos, and at times resembles a mafia boss when providing ambiguous replies to accusations of corruption.

Of course, New York in the late seventies was not just about football, and the film has all the necessary shots of the players and executives mingling with the likes of Mick Jagger, Dustin Hoffman, Muhammad Ali and Henry Kissinger, hanging out as VIPs at Studio 54, and, as you'd expect, posing with lots of beautiful young ladies. A cracking soundtrack of funk, soul, disco and pop music from the era completes the mood nicely.

Once In A Lifetime moves at a swift pace and is a great deal of fun but it is not without its flaws. For starters, there is simply not enough match footage to satisfy the average football fan. I appreciate that NASL matches were only covered by network TV for one season, but it would have been great to see more of Pelé, Beckenbauer, Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto playing together in the same side. I see this as an opportunity missed. Secondly, the film barely skims the surface when recounting the collapse of the Cosmos and the league in general. The narrator cites dilution of talent through ridiculous overexpansion and the obvious overspending as the NASL's cause of death, but I'd have liked to learn more about this and its impact on the league's players and fans.

It remains to be seen whether David Beckham's move to Los Angeles will open the floodgates for an influx of foreign talent - and a subsequent boom in US soccer - but with the relaxation of Major Soccer League's previously strict salary rules and reports that several US clubs have been inquiring about Zinedine Zidane's availability, the possibility of history repeating itself is certainly there. Until then, fans of the beautiful game will enjoy basking in the slightly skewed nostalgia of this richly entertaining film.