I hung a photo of Cosmos soccer player Shep Messing on my wall, in the late 1970s. Not sure why. The memory just popped up, disconnected from its context, while watching Paul Crowder and John Dower's thoroughly engaging documentary about U.S. professional soccer in the 1970s, Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos. But I reckon it proves the film's point: Soccer had a brief flash of heat in the late '70s, even if today we can barely disgorge it from the darkest recesses of our brains. Luckily, this film is a joyful, and informative, trip back.
In the mid-1970s, the New York Cosmos, a struggling team whose players kept day jobs, caught the attention of Steve Ross, head of Warner Entertainment and a charismatic powerbroker. Ross' idea to kick-start the team, and in theory, America's embrace of a sport he loved, was simple: Hire the best player in the world, recently retired Brazilian superstar Pelé. Importing talent proved a successful strategy, and Ross continued to augment the team with international stars, creating what looked like an on-field United Nations mixed with a three-ring circus (cheerleaders, bands, Warner's own Bugs Bunny).
Plenty of great archival footage is intercut with contemporary interviews with players, management, sports journalists and other interested parties, including Henry Kissinger, who purportedly played a unique role. Most look back cheerfully, even as the recriminations fly. (One interviewee counsels that the historical accounts will be Rashomon-like, referring to that film's infamous multiple versions of truth.) Unfortunately, we never hear from the King himself; Pelé "declined to be interviewed," and the film accompanies that disclaimer with a ka-ching sound effect (draw your own conclusions).
In many respects, Once is less a sports story (certainly, interest in soccer is no prerequisite) than a fascinating account of that quintessentially American tendency to just create from air and carefully calibrated hype whatever one guy reckons consumers need. Steve Ross had brought us rock 'n' roll, cable television and Space Invaders, and now, dammit, we were to have and enjoy international-caliber soccer. It even worked for a minute or so.
Ultimately, as in so many rags-to-riches tales, the Cosmos were done in by their own success, and eventually slipped back into obscurity. Ross and his compatriots never realized their dream ... that the American public would truly become part of the global football family. Yet the team's flash of success is still likely the reason millions of kiddies in the '80s and '90s took to the soccer field, embracing a game their parents never knew. And the Cosmos saga does prove that when all the stars align, America's perennial "game of the future" can make a full-throated fast break for the present.