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Once In a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

A Quick Remedy for a World Cup Hangover

Still stung by the U.S.A.’s swift departure from the World Cup? Once In a Lifetime offers a quick fix. As an in-depth glimpse into the sudden and improbable rise of the Pelé-led New York Cosmos, it provides an intriguing portrait of the Big Apple in the 70s, complete with its frenzied crowds, funky music and summer-of-Sam tension.

Thrust upon a public that has never fully embraced soccer – despite Howard Cosell’s prediction that the sport would one day become “the biggest big league of all” in America -- the Cosmos had all the makings of a colossal flop from the get-go. Although then-Warner Communications chief Steve Ross invested $4.7 million to snare the game’s most marketable star, the Brazilian legend Pelé, in 1975, the North American Soccer League had sputtered since its 1966 inception, attracting paltry crowds even in the nation’s largest and most culturally diverse markets.

But Ross’ gamble paid off. Pelé and fellow hired guns like Italy’s Giorgio Chinaglia and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer made the Cosmos the toast of the town. On the field, they were soccer’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters -- aging, past-their-prime stars who banded together to form a still-potent all-star team. Off the pitch, they partied like rock stars, basking in the intoxicating glow of the Studio 54 dance floor. And New Yorkers loved them for it. In 1977, more than 70,000 fans packed the recently opened Giants Stadium to see the Cosmos win the NASL championship.

Once In a Lifetime neatly captures all the passion and exuberance of that turbulent period. Paul Crowder and John Dower’s documentary is an invigorating, briskly paced mix of game footage and telling interviews with former players, who can’t seem to agree on anything. (Pelé is noticeably absent.) The only certainty? That the team, as organized by a team of ambitious entrepreneurs who brought more money to the table than foresight, captured the imagination of millions before flaming out in the mid-80s, thanks to unfulfilled promises, careless expansion and shaky finances.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars