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

Posted by on Dec 21, 2011 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
DVD Review: Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos
Image available under Creative Commons © RS Butner

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

Directed by Paul Crowder and John Dower, Miramax, 2006

This remarkably well put together movie conjures up an era when America seemed so much more exciting, so much more dazzling, so much more…ahead than the rest of the world. Its late seventies locus is New York and its subject the Cosmos, five times Soccer Bowl Champions and the club that inspired a famous T-shirt of the time that the sport was ‘just a kick in the grass’.

An array of talking heads that would put I love a week last Tuesday to shame have been assembled — a who’s who not only of the North American Soccer League but the era itself — Cruyff, Beckenbauer, former Big Apple Mayor Ed Koch and that master of the offensive malapropism, Rodney Marsh. Narrated by Matt Dillon, the documentary is a classy piece of cinema indeed — charting the history of the club from humble beginnings to final meltdown.

The early story is peppered with surprisingly surviving footage and the early days at Hofstra University and at Downey Stadium on Randall’s Island seem a world away from the crowds of 70,000 or more the Cosmos were to go on to post a few years later. The pitch at the East River location was to be spray painted green to cover up the bare patches — a ploy that led Pele to believe he had contracted a particularly nasty case of athlete’s foot — but the circumstances that led the Brazilian to the US were a real paradigm shift — media mogul Steve Ross swooping deus ex machina to spin straw into gold. You draw your own Robinho and Agüero comparisons.

Ross could count the likes of Ray Charles and Barbra Streisand among his employees and happily admitted that funding the Cosmos was costing a matter of 2 cents for every share (a lot when you added things up). The sweet shop mentality was clear — every time a dip occurred, a new star was brought in — Giorgio Chinaglia, the aforementioned Kaiser, Carlos Alberto. Conditions were lavish — a special table was assigned at Studio 54, the Chivas Regal flowed and Mick Jagger went unrecognised in the dressing room.

An oddity of the time was the incompatibility of a continuing international career while operating stateside for one’s club but otherwise, the parallels to the fiscally gluttonous present are legion. Chinaglia in particular is painted as a villain of epic proportions, daring to declare himself ‘disgusted’ with the lack of service from the Minas Gerais born legend whilst being roundly despised by all and sundry — general manager Clive Toye even goes so far to proclaim the Italo-Welshman as ‘single-handedly responsible for the death of the Cosmos’.

The revealing nature of the interviews and the slow revelation of the financial dust heap are interwoven expertly — nobody can agree on how much it cost to take Pele to the States and the importance of a television deal to the health of a sporting venture is underlined — an agreement with ABC lasted only a season and was the first nail in the coffin of a league that was to nonetheless provide some extraordinary moments — a wondrous shoot out chip from Carlos Alberto and a cheeky pilfering of a goal from future England midfielder Steve Hunt are real highlights. A highly entertaining ninety minutes or so.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.


  1. Frank Heaven
    December 23, 2011

    What an incredible place NYC must have been in the last 1970s. Culturally, it gave birth to three major musical genres – punk, hip hop, and disco – while economically, it went bankrupt – rubbish piled up in the streets, pimps and whores roamed Times Square, and lights really did go out in 1977 during the infamous 25-hour blackout.

    And into the midst of this came the Cosmos. I'm sure the heady backdrop of 1970s New York contributed to the legendary aura that still surrounds the team to this day. Quite what Steve Hunt made of it all, you do wonder.

    It's good to see the name was bought in 2009 by a consortium keen to relaunch the team in MLS. This documentary can take credit for contributing to the rebirth of one of America's – if not the world's – most glamorous football names.

  2. Lanterne Rouge
    December 25, 2011

    I was surprised that the Cosmos initially played at Randall’s Island. Although they and the Metro Stars/Red Bulls have enjoyed most of their years across the river in Jersey, it’s always seemed unsatisfactory that this was the case.I am not sure where the new team are going to set up shop but somewhere in the five boroughs would be good.

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    […] smaller than our book reviews section, previous DVDs we have reviewed include Once in a Lifetime and The Damned United. Share this: Lanterne Rouge Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne […]


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