When soccer had a foot in America’s door

Times Staff Writer

THERE was a sense of kismet in New York City in the 1970s.

The Big Apple was exciting. Dangerous. It was era of the Son of Sam serial killer. It was the home of Studio 54. Its sports teams -- the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets and Knicks -- reigned supreme.

And for a few years during the decade, the city became obsessed with the New York Cosmos soccer team.

Made up mostly of young players and a sprinkling of foreign-born stars, the professional club leaped from obscurity to become the country’s first great soccer team, thanks to its legendary Brazilian superstar Pele and the passion and financial backing of Warner Communications Chairman Steve Ross, who treated his players in the same lavish manner as he did the acting talent at his movie studio.


The new documentary, “Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos,” which opens here Friday, tells the fascinating, funny story of the team’s rise and fall.

“We were just a phenomenon,” said Cosmos goalie Shep Messing, who just concluded announcing some of the World Cup matches for ESPN.

“I don’t think you could ever replicate what we did. I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime combination of the best players in the world, rock stars and an owner who spent money. I think soccer is in a much better place now [in America], but I don’t think the factors could ever come together again -- the stars aligning the right way.”

Though there’s plenty of archival footage of Pele, who came out of retirement in 1975 to join the Cosmos with a three-year, multimillion-dollar contract that at the time made him one of the world’s highest-paid athletes, he isn’t interviewed in the film. It wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of co-director Paul Crowder and producers John Battsek and Fisher Stevens.


“We did the whole nine yards,” said Battsek (“One Day in September”). “We scheduled two trips to New York supposedly around interviews with Pele. We did everything we possibly could other than kidnapping.”

Stevens even went to Brazil in search of Pele. “We tried every single avenue to get the guy and he couldn’t do it,” he said. “He wanted $150,000.”

Battsek said that because Pele is quite possibly the most revered sportsman of our time, he and Crowder had to “tread very carefully” on how they expressed their frustration in not getting the interview. So when his face appears in the “what are they doing now” sequence at the film’s end, the “ka-ching” sound of a cash register is heard.

Battsek said some reviewers have said that Pele “nixed” an interview for the film. “He didn’t nix it,” the producer said. “We could have interviewed him but we chose not to. You start paying one guy, why should you not be paying anyone else? We spent three years making this film and if we felt the film suffered, I would have robbed a bank. But that wasn’t the case.”


Messing, who is still friends with Pele, said that it was the people surrounding him who demanded the money, not Pele himself. “It’s kind of neat that he didn’t talk,” Messing maintains. “It adds a bit of intrigue, but if they were able to sit with him one-on-one, he would have gladly done it. It was a special time in his life.”

TWO years after the North American Soccer League was formed in 1968, Ross and record producers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun negotiated with Commissioner Phil Woosnam to create the New York Cosmos. Things didn’t start out well, however. At the first game at Yankee Stadium in 1971, only 3,746 fans showed up. The following year, the team won its first American championship, but attendance remained sparse.

Messing even posed nude for a magazine to “arouse” interest in the Cosmos. “I made a few dollars,” he recalled sheepishly. “But I thought it would help get exposure for the game that I loved.”

It was Pele’s arrival that turned the franchise around. Those years, Messing said, were like living a dream. “You are playing a game because you love it and you wake up the next morning and you are playing with the greatest players in the world in front of 70,000 people. None of us took that moment for granted. We knew it was special.”


Messing said that Ross was like a father to the players. “Clearly, soccer was his passion -- we don’t know why. He treated each of us like his kids. He was like that with his movie stars. When we won the championship at Pele’s last game, it was pure. Steve Ross was like a kid in the locker room with us. It was just beautiful.”

In 1976, the Cosmos signed Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, who, despite his brilliant scoring, rankled his fellow players and fans with his in-your-face-attitude.

In 1984, Ross sold the team to Chinaglia. The following year, it folded, and the league went belly up by the end of the decade.

Time hasn’t softened Chinaglia’s personality. “I don’t think it counts that much what my feelings are [about the movie],” he barked over the phone. “I know the facts that happened and how everything turned out. I was the head of the company and a player as well. It was difficult because you had to let some people go.”


Messing believes the Cosmos phenomenon simply ran its course, like bell-bottoms and disco.

“We were a bubble that burst,” he said. “Just like when Studio 54 went away. There was no foundation for it. I think when Pele left there were a couple of years of great attendance. It was like a great Broadway play that ran its course. And Giorgio was the guy who, at the end, was left holding the bag.”