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Once in a Lifetime remembers when soccer players lived like rock stars.

Once in a Lifetime Shaker Square Cinemas
A $4.7 million contract persuaded Pel to sign with the Cosmos.
A $4.7 million contract persuaded Pel to sign with the Cosmos.
When the clueless U.S. men's soccer team got dumped in the first round of the World Cup in June, American sports fans generally shrugged and went about their business. Aside from its popularity among millions of suburban schoolchildren, what most other earthlings call "the beautiful game" still arouses about the same passion here as Olympic badminton or summer-school algebra.

But it wasn't always so. For a brief, shining moment in the late 1970s, soccer was a hot ticket -- especially in ethnically diverse New York. At their peak in 1977, the New York Cosmos, kings of the North American Soccer League, drew sellout crowds to the 77,000-seat Giants Stadium. Cosmos players were A-list celebs, with Rolexes on their wrists and supermodels on their arms. The sagging Mets and Jets suddenly had a new rival at the box office, and no less a sage than Howard Cosell predicted: "Soccer will be the biggest big league of all."

Six years later, the NASL was dead, and U.S. soccer slipped back into oblivion.

It comes as no surprise that the co-directors of the intermittently fascinating documentary Once in a Lifetime, which chronicles the rise and fall of the Cosmos, are both Englishmen. For Paul Crowder and John Dower, whose native country reinvented the modern game, "football" is the emotional and cultural equivalent of what we Yanks call, well, football -- a national ritual that stirs the blood and boggles the brain. Don't believe it? Just ask the next lager-sodden hooligan you meet on his way to the Arsenal-Chelsea game.

Aside from the old black-and-white footage of the 17-year-old Brazilian wizard Pelé dazzling defenders at the 1958 World Cup, the best thing about Lifetime is its seemingly preordained flow of tragicomedy. In this neoclassic, we've got an intrepid but blinkered hero (the late Warner Communications chairman Steve Ross, who built the pathetic Cosmos into a powerhouse), a faltering god (the transcendent Pelé, centerpiece of the Cosmos' creation myth), and a dark-eyed villain (Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, whose self-absorbed chicanery helped drive the dream and the team asunder). There's even a loyal and witty servant (ex-Cosmos goalie Shep Messing, who once posed nude for a magazine to promote the game and supplement his $2,100 player salary). And the wrath of Satan? Maybe that falls to ABC Sports, which canceled its crucial broadcasts of NASL games in 1979, after just one ratings-starved season.

A quarter-century later, the recollections of the survivors are still a fetching blend of absurdist jokes and gossip-column venom. Steve Ross' son rhapsodizes about the missionary purity of Dad's commitment to the Cosmos and the growth of U.S. soccer. But a former partner calls Ross a delusional "star-fucker" addicted to big names, and a former Warner lawyer tells us, still astonished, how Ross ordered him to suspend contract negotiations with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman for All the President's Men and fly down to Rio instead to woo Pelé, recently retired from the Brazilian game. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Pelé signed with New York, for the then-outrageous sum of $4.7 million -- but not before Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put the squeeze on the reluctant Brazilian government.

At 34, Pelé was the big star U.S. soccer -- and New York -- needed. But he played just two years, and it wasn't until the divisive Chinaglia and the unflappable German Franz Beckenbauer joined him on the team that the Cosmos (which had been playing on a glass-strewn field in decrepit Randall's Island Stadium) became the class of the league. Little matter that the stars were all well past their prime: They spent plenty of time in the training room, aka Studio 54. The details of their debaucheries go unchronicled here, but former Tampa Bay Rowdies star Rodney Marsh perfectly captures the spirit of New York's heroes in a story from 1976. When Pelé and Chinaglia arrived in Tampa for a playoff game, Marsh recalls, they were met at the airport by a limousine, two gorgeous women, and an ample supply of Chivas Regal. Next day, the Cosmos stars dragged themselves onto the field and lost to the underdog Rowdies, 4-2.

New York won five NASL titles before the league disbanded in 1984. Witnesses for the prosecution would like to blame Chinaglia, but the facts tell us that action-oriented Americans simply didn't want to watch soccer on TV. In all likelihood, they still don't, but Crowder and Dower can't help looking on the bright side. The filmmakers point to the continued growth of youth soccer here as evidence of the Cosmos' lasting effect, and in the documentary's final statement -- intoned by narrator Matt Dillon -- they tell us that the NASL's pro-league descendant, Major League Soccer, "continues to thrive today." Really? Truth be told, 4 of the MLS's 12 teams are owned by one man, soccer-loving Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, and it's no secret that he continues to absorb annual losses with stoic resolve.

Meanwhile, the new owner of New York's MLS team, Austrian magnate Dietrich Mateschitz, seems to be taking a page out of Steve Ross' tattered book. Reportedly, Mateschitz has been simultaneously recruiting Brazilian icon Ronaldo (who is the World Cup's all-time leading goal-scorer, but clearly in his twilight) and English glamour boy David Beckham to the Red Bulls. The price for each? About 20 times what Pelé got back in 1975. Will history repeat itself? That's hard to tell. But if Brazilian President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva suddenly vanishes, the cops should probably bring Kissinger in for questioning.

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