Once in a Lifetime
2006Director: Paul Crowder and John Dower
Cast: Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff
arrated by the aurally muscular Matt Dillon, Once in a Lifetime is an astute and beautiful look back at the furious rise and fall of the New York Cosmos, a genuine All American big dollar soccer team. Put together by the Warner / Atari tycoon Steve Ross, the Cosmos were a rag tag bunch of dishwashers and semi-pros until the big stars started to arrive, the first of which was the remarkable Pele, unquestionably the greatest player who had ever lived.
Pele set the country alight with his childlike passion for the sport. Crowder and Dower’s documentary really harnesses this feeling of a sport, a cultural and social movement, at its birth, a rare and wonderful thing. The film focuses on the clash of egos between Pele and the goal-scoring monomaniac Giorgio Chinaglia. A former Lazio and Italy striker, Chinaglia’s record of 253 goals in 225 professional games left him immune from the otherwise contagious adoration of the brilliant Brazilian. One argument is recounted:
Pele: You shoot from no fucking angle!The former head of operations for Warner cleverly noticed that “Chinaglia was a sucking kind of guy,” meaning that whenever he scored, he’d celebrate in front of the shareholders, professing his love for them, winning their affection. Perhaps this is something the Americans never expected with soccer, which I think they saw as a sport for little girls, Chinaglia immediately exposing them to the difficult politics embedded within European football. Eventually, Chinaglia runs the club into the ground, paying his allies huge amounts of money, isolating himself from the rest of the team, still scoring fabulous goals.
Chinaglia: I am Chinaglia. If Chinaglia shoot, Chinaglia fucking score!
Once in a Lifetime is a colourful and engaging piece of social commentary, showing the sheer inspirational force of New York in the ‘70’s and the disarming mass appreciation of sports in America, unimaginable in Europe. Over here, basketball and American football go through routine launches, but they just cannot truly capture the imagination. The filmmakers show that America has the natural capacity to harness waves of excitement, fashions, interests, group activities. The flipside is also explored, as the rise to fame of the Cosmos proved as shockingly abrupt as the collapse and disinterest. Much of this is blamed on the erratic and badly handled TV coverage. However, if America ultimately wanted the game, they would have taken it, demanded it. It wasn’t to be. The league imploded and the stars retired.
The success of the Cosmos and the NASL isn’t in laying the foundations for the current successful football league and thoroughly respectable national team. Rather, and as the documentary shows, their success was fleeting, capturing the imagination for just a few years, reaching unsustainable delirium. The Cosmos, somehow, improbably, brought something so different to the city that it was almost untouchable. The players were stars, hanging out with the likes of Redford, Hoffman, Jagger, and even Kissinger, welcomed at Studio 54, with disco blondes at their beck and call. This phenomenon seems almost unimaginable today, especially considering the universal animosity with which Roman Abramovich’s star-fucking has been greeted. Steve Ross created the NASL out of pure love of the game. Ultimately, sports can mean everything, depending what you put into it. Steve Ross threw his heart and soul into the venture and this passion affected people.
As one would expect from the editor of Dogtown and Z-Boys, the cuts are fly, witty, and timed to the rhythm of the excellent, funk-ridden soundtrack. It is consummately put together, slick, seemingly very much of the time with no frills and authentic visuals. The footage of Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Pele, Marsh, and Carlos Alberto is truly exciting and extremely rare. It’s like watching football in some kind of fantasy world, as they swan by defenders who kind of look like the Ramones, shooting beyond a goalie who wouldn’t look out of place alongside the Globetrotters.
The combination of that uniquely identifiable 1970’s New York aesthetic and football is an inexplicably pleasing thing, and this highly enjoyable documentary, at once, works well as historical journalism while revelling in pure visual joy. This is a truly heart-warming spectacle: an entire city temporarily maddened with passion for something they never necessarily understood, but loved anyway.
Once in a Lifetime is currently playing in the U.K., and opens in limited release next month in the U.S.