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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Once in a Lifetime is Priceless


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.

Ultimately the NASL did not fail but in fact succeeded. Even now, thirty years later when I travel abroad people are more likely to know the names "The Cosmos, or the Rowdies" than any current club in MLS or USL the top flight leagues in the US that replaced the NASL. (I will concede the best known names today of American clubs are two USL clubs who have kept the names of the NASL clubs in their cities: the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers) Youth Soccer was niche ethnic sport in the United States before the Cosmos craze of the 1970s and early 1980s and by the time the NASL died, it was the biggest participatory sport in the nation for kids under the age of 12.

The NASL planted the seeds for the US National Team success of the 1990s and a successful World Cup being staged on American soil in 1994. The negative legacy of the NASL is simple and not debatable. The quality of soccer was so superior to today's MLS or USL it spoiled many American fans about the game. Many of these fans today opt to watch European football which readily available on US TV instead of American soccer.

MLS and USL are indigenous products that are the logical successor of the NASL's work. The American player largely irrelevent during the height of the Cosmos frenzy is now of a world class standard. Our leagues today have more American players at their disposal to sign and to develop and with the opening up of European club football to the world, an NASL like product on US soil with countless stars of world football may be impossible to replicate.

The debate about American soccer aside, this film is riveting and a must see for sports fans off all stripes.

The author, a lifelong fan of the beautiful game is an associate with the international polling firm Bendixen and Associates in Coral Gables. He resides in Coral Springs with his wife, dog and two cats.

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I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.