Paul Crowder and John Dower’s Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos is the latest example of what might be dubbed “sports footnote documentary,” a nonfiction sub-genre in which lavish, nostalgic love and attention is paid to little-known (and/or trivial) athletics stories from which no larger significance can be derived. In this case, the slight saga (narrated by Matt Dillon) revolves around the New York Cosmos, a superstar professional soccer team from the mid-to-late-‘70s that, culled together by Warner Communications mogul Steve Ross, aimed to bring the “world’s most popular sport” to America. With an international roster of luminaries headlined by the legendary Pelé, the Cosmos invigorated the moribund North American Soccer League (NASL) and, at its championship peak, managed to sell out Giants Stadium while turning its members into Studio 54-frequenting celebrities. The Cosmos’s rise-and-fall lifespan, however, was incredibly quick, as the team and the NASL would disband and disappear into obscurity by the mid-‘80s, a fate Crowder and Dower’s film—buoyed by revealing interviews with a legion of talking heads—primarily attributes to a failure to secure the television audience necessary to sustain a major U.S. athletic association. The underlying cause of those tiny Nielsen ratings was that Americans simply didn’t care enough about soccer to watch it on TV, a fact that one historian derisively ascribes to the country’s short attention span; as his (familiar, specious) argument goes, most U.S. sports have built-in stoppages in play (inning breaks in baseball; in between every snap in football) that allow viewers to periodically grab beer and chips from the fridge, and Americans’ unfocused brains just couldn’t handle the ebb and flow of a game that doesn’t have myriad pre-set interruptions. The implication of such condescending logic is that, because Americans don’t “get” soccer even though it’s adored overseas, something must be wrong with them, a contention that forms about the extent of Once in a Lifetime‘s facile analysis of the wide-scale disinterest that continues to stifle the sport’s domestic growth. As a curiosity tale filed with prosaic ‘70s-era graphics and trifling gossipy anecdotes, however, the film is an uncanny reflection of soccer itself: intermittently engaging but generally a dramatically inert bore.
- Paul Crowder, John Dower
- John Dower
- Matt Dillon, Pelé, Steve Ross, Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto
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