The rise and fall of the Cosmos

Times Staff Writer

It's not Zidane-head-butt-to-the-chest invigorating, but the documentary "Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos" does provide an exuberant look at a heady moment in America's soccer past that is well worth remembering. However, beginning with its hyperbolic title, the film would seem to overstate the lingering importance of the team's bright lights and big-city implosion and suffers from a certain amount of sloppiness in its execution.

The Cosmos were established in 1971, in time for the fourth season of the North American Soccer League, an organization formed by the merger of two fledgling groups -- the United Soccer Assn. and the National Professional Soccer League -- established after the stirring 1966 World Cup. As the league's average attendance inched up to the midfour figures, teams began supplementing their rosters of mostly former college players and immigrants with past-their-prime international stars.

By 1975, the NASL had expanded to 20 franchises and, in what would prove to be a revolutionary move, the Cosmos signed the sport's biggest star, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pele. At 34, Pele was nearing the end of his playing career but was one of the world's most recognizable sports figures, and his arrival gave the league a much-needed shot of credibility and, more importantly, marketability. In his three years with the Cosmos, the team moved from dingy Downing Stadium on Randall's Island to Yankee Stadium and finally to Giants Stadium in New Jersey, where they set U.S. attendance records for soccer, drawing 77,000 fans for a playoff game.

The Cosmos brought in other stars in the wake of Pele -- including Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, Germany's Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto from Brazil. Other NASL teams -- including the Los Angeles Aztecs with Johann Cruyff of the Netherlands -- tried to compete by signing stars of their own, but none experienced a similar attendance boon.

The team was a phenomenon as flashy and glitzy as the city it represented. Players were treated like movie stars and were regulars at Studio 54 and other hot spots. During the Cosmos' breakout 1977 season, when the team handily competed for headlines with the hunt for the Son of Sam serial killer, the city's infamous blackout and a New York Yankees team on its way to its first World Series championship in 15 seasons, average attendance nearly doubled to more than 34,000.

Against this backdrop, the Cosmos' flameout was nothing short of spectacular.

The league's overexpansion and careless spending, compounded by its inability to draw TV viewers, led to many teams folding. From its peak of 24 teams in 1978, the league dwindled to nine by its final season in 1984. The Cosmos suffered from mismanagement and, along with several other NASL teams, joined the Major Indoor Soccer League but dropped out the following year and finally expired after attempting to make a go of it as an independent.

In their glory years, the Cosmos were owned by Warner Communications, headed by Steve Ross, and the film devotes significant time to explaining how that marriage came to be. Atlantic Records moguls Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun were instrumental in getting Ross interested in soccer and it was Warner's deep pockets that allowed the Cosmos to spend so lavishly.

A sometimes controversial maverick of finance who later oversaw Warner's mega-merger with Time Inc., Ross died of cancer in 1992. His perspective is represented in the film by his son Mark and to a greater degree, former Warner Communications executive Jay Emmett. Curiously, the film fails to mention the bribery-kickback scandal that rocked the company and led to Emmett's departure after he pleaded guilty to fraud charges in 1981.

What it does go into -- and very entertainingly -- is Ross' peculiar relationship with Chinaglia that eventually led to the flamboyant striker's purchase of the team in its waning stages. Soap operas seldom have as much intrigue as the Cosmos did during the Chinaglia era of 1976 to 1983, when he became the NASL all-time scoring leader. Directors Paul Crowder and John Dower craftily intercut interviews with Emmett and Chinaglia to create a wonderful sequence of contradictory accounts that borders on farce.

Another noticeable omission -- and not for a lack of trying on the part of the filmmakers, who none too subtly imply that he declined to be interviewed over money -- is Pele himself.

He's present in archival footage and his importance is described in detail, but his opinions would have been welcome.

And then there is the fact that the film is perhaps too adoring. For a brief time, soccer appeared ready to make a run at joining the major team sports in the hearts of Americans, and the Cosmos and Pele were obviously a huge part of that. However, the film overlooks that youth soccer's popularity in the U.S. was already on the rise in the early '70s and gives short shrift to American players such as Kyle Rote Jr. of the Dallas Tornado, who gained acclaim for the league by winning the made-for-TV "Superstars" competition in 1974, 1976 and 1977, and goaltender Bob Rigby of the Philadelphia Atoms, who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1973.

Propelled by an eclectic mix of period pop and a sprinkling of opera on its soundtrack, "Once in a Lifetime" is nonetheless a lively, free-wheeling amusement. An abundance of clips is nicely enhanced by interviews with notable participants, including soccer fan Henry Kissinger (who helped pave the way for the coming of Pele), broadcaster Marv Albert, the Ertegun brothers, Beckenbauer, Alberto, Cosmos players Shep Messing and Werner Roth, longtime Cosmos executive Clive Toye and NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam.

Once in a lifetime? Perhaps. We may get a redux in a few years if David Beckham jumps the pond and comes to America in an attempt to boost Major League Soccer's fortunes, but it's unlikely it will approach the level of frenzy Pele and the Cosmos achieved. Then again, Pele wasn't married to a Spice Girl.


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

MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and some nudity

A Miramax Films release. Directors Paul Crowder, John Dower. Producers John Battsek, Fisher Stevens, Tim Williams. Writer Dower. Editor Crowder. Narrator Matt Dillon. Music Matter Music. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

Exclusively at Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas, 10800 Pico Blvd. (at Overland Avenue) (310) 281-8223.

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