Sunday, May 11, 2008

UF Goes to the Movies: Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos

We continue our somewhat sporadic series of movie reviews here at UF with the film "Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos." As the title implies, this movie is about the history of the North American Soccer League as viewed through the prism of the league's most popular team, the New York Cosmos. As someone who went to numerous Cosmos games growing up in NYC, I thought that it was about time that I took a look at this cinematic masterpiece.

(Not pictured: a young NY Kid flipping off Bugs Bunny. Seriously, that fucker never gave me any of his stupid carrots)

The movie, narrated by Matt Dillon strangely enough, opens with footage of the American soccer scene in the 1970s, and we hear that "the Cosmos were the best and worst of soccer in the US." This is followed by Shep Messing (who looks distrubingly like David Hirshey) stating that "in the summer of '77, the Cosmos took over." At this point our man Hirshey makes his first (of many) appearance(s), where he discusses the 1950 World Cup in which the US shocked the world by defeating England.

The film then delves into the history of the North American Soccer League and the NY Cosmos. Steve Ross had created Warner Communications and Atari, and then expanded his empire by buying Atlantic Records. The Ertegun brothers, who had founded Atlantic Records, told Ross that one condition of the sale would be that he had to help them establish a soccer team. And thus, the idea of the Cosmos was born. The television broadcast of the World Cup final in 1966, in which England defeated Germany, motivated enough people to invest in the Cosmos that the idea became reality in 1971.

The team played their first game in Yankee Stadium, but eventually moved to Hofstra University on Long Island. Disillusioned with the progress of the team, and losing a significant amount of money, the ten original investors sold their shares to Warner Communications for $1 each. The players were also stuggling financially, which lead to Shep Messing posing fully nude in VIVA magazine. Although Cosmos management was initially furious, they realized that the pictorial brought attention to the team. It was also the first sign of the "rock star" status that the players would take on.

In 1974, the team moved to Downey Stadium on Randall Island, and were faced with a pitch that was made up of dirt and rocks in large patches. They went 6-14 that year, although this result was due more to the lack of talent rather than the state of the pitch. This caused management, and Ross in particular, to start looking for big-name players, and at the time no one was bigger than Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pele. At this point in the film, almost everyone associated with the early history of the Cosmos gets on camera and claims to be the one whose idea it was to go after Pele, so it remains unclear where the idea came from. What is clear is that Real Madrid and Juventus were also interested in acquiring Pele's services, but he was intrigued by the prospect of bringing soccer to the US on a grand scale (obviously this would never happen today - if Real Madrid, Juventus, and the LA Galaxy were all interested in bringing Ryan Giggs to their team, it's pretty clear that the Galaxy would be the last option; they get Beckham precisely because Real didn't want him anymore).

Pele eventually signed a multi-part contract worth several million dollars (although it is unclear exactly how much) for playing, public relations/marketing, and music (really? Did Pele ever put out an album?). The Brazilian government wanted to force Pele to play one more year in Brazil, so they declared him a national treasure. Steve Ross, as head of Warner Communications, worked with Nelson Rockefeller, who was also the vice president of the United States, and he asked the latter to intervene. Rockefeller put Henry Kissinger on the case, and the situation was quickly resolved.

In preparation for Pele's first game, the Cosmos organization spray-painted the dirt patches on the pitch at Downing Stadium in order for the field to appear green and lush with grass. CBS broadcast the game, and Pele didn't disappoint by scoring two goals to tie the game 2-2. There were some, however, like prominent sportswriter Dick Young, who didn't believe that soccer was here to stay. In an attempt to discredit Pele, Young took him to Mets game in order to show him the "true American sport." Young was stunned when the Mets game had to be stopped as the crowd acknowledged Pele, forcing him onto the field in order to respond to their ovations.

The next season, the Cosmos moved back to Yankee Stadium and other foreign stars followed Pele to the NASL. Steve Ross went after even more stars, bringing Giorgio Chinaglia to the Cosmos. At this point, the film moves into a montage of people discussing the fact that Chinaglia is a complete asshole. Although he claims that this is due to the fact that he became the NASL's leading scorer and was quite close to Steve Ross, most people in the clips aruge that he was simply an epic douchebag. Obviously, friction developed between Pele and Chinaglia, as tends to happen when two superstars share the pitch.

The next season, 1977, the Cosmos finally moved into Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. This was Pele's final season, and Ross added even more international players. After losing 3 of their first 5 games and averaging only 20,000 fans, Ross brought Franz Beckenbauer to the Cosmos, which pissed off Chinaglia even further. The strain of the season eventually lead to the resignation of president Clive Toye and the firing of coach Gordon Bradley (who recently passed away). Chinaglia exerted some influence and convinced Ross to hire Eddie Frimani, who repaid the favor by using Chinaglia more often in matches. The Cosmos went on a winning streak, but then lost 5 in a row so Ross signed Carlos Alberto from Brazil.

At this point the Cosmos were taking off as a cultural phenomenon, with the players partying at Studio 54 after every game and generally living the good life. In the playoffs that year, the Cosmos sold out Giants Stadium (77,961) for their match against Fort Lauderdale. The Cosmos won the championship that year, leading ABC to negotiate to broadcast NASL games the following season. During that season, during which the NASL expanded to 24 teams, the Cosmos won 15 out of their first 17 games against much weaker competition. They went 24-6 overall but lost their first playoff game 9-2 against Minnesota. However, in the second leg the Cosmos beat Minnesota 4-0, resulting in the need for a shoot-out (apparently they didn't follow the European "away goals" scoring format). Carlos Alberto's chip shot resulted in the 2nd consecutive championship for the Cosmos.

The following season, Chinaglia exerted even more influence and began to take over team operations, alienating much of the management. Although the Cosmos reached the championship match once again, they lost this time, and ABC cancelled their contract due to poor ratings. In 1980, league attendance reached its peak, and the Cosmos won their 3rd title in 4 years. At this point the film delivers another montage of individuals blaming Chinaglia for the downfall of the Cosmos. In 1982, although the Cosmos won their 5th title, the rest of the league was crumbling. After the crash of Atari crippled Warner Communications, the Cosmos eventually folded in 1984 and the league disbanded.

Steve Ross continued to follow his passion for the game, and he was part of the movement to bring the 1986 World Cup to the US, eventually losing out to Mexico. Unfortunately, Ross passed away in 1992, just 2 years before his dream was realized and the World Cup came to the US, playing several significant and well-attended matches at Giants Stadium.

The film ends by noting that the legacy of the Cosmos is that they laid the seed for everyone who plays soccer in the United States today, from the AYSO the MLS teams. Overall, this was a really good movie in terms of providing a history lesson on the Cosmos, including how they impacted both pop culture in the NY of the 1970s as well as the culture of soccer in the US.

1 comment:

Keith said...

You may ask yourself: Where is that gigantic soccer crowd.

And you may tell yourself: This is not my beautiful game.