Every four years, as eyes across the globe turn toward the glorious spectacle of the World Cup, U.S. sportswriters and talk-show blowhards reflect on why the competition ranks somewhere between minor golf tournaments and professional bowling in America's imagination. Many commentators are such proud isolationists that they don't bother trying to understand soccer, instead brushing it off as dull and low-scoring, filled with cowardly dives and endless attack sequences that come to naught. If nothing else, the energetic documentary Once In A Lifetime proves that an audience once existed for soccer in this country, and could be cultivated again. All that's needed is a spark, that special player who stands out from all the anonymous, unimaginative ball-shufflers that populate American soccer.
In the mid-'70s, that spark was Pelé, the charismatic Brazilian superstar who had carried his legendary national squads to two World Cups and exemplified the creativity and joy that are the hallmarks of Brazil's "samba" style. At the time, American soccer was all but dead, not even viable as the suburban minivan sport it would later become, and a handful of ragtag teams in the North American Soccer League were playing in front of double-digit crowds. All that changed when Warner Communications, under the sports-crazed chairman Steve Ross, bought the NASL's New York Cosmos and inked a three-year deal with Pelé for unprecedented millions. For a while, this heavily bankrolled experiment worked beautifully, with Pelé and a team full of other aging international superstars—such as Germany's Franz Beckenbauer and Italy's Giorgio Chinaglia—became a Harlem Globetrotters-like road show. Then Pelé retired and the league collapsed spectacularly.
Narrated by Matt Dillon, Once In A Lifetime frames the rise and fall of the Cosmos as if it were Boogie Nights II, complete with aggressive stylistic touches and a soundtrack loaded with '70s staples by Diana Ross, Kool & The Gang, and The Commodores. One minute, the Cosmos were riding high, with a massive entourage of willing groupies and regular appearances at Studio 54; the next, they were falling victim to the league's thoughtless expansion (The Calgary Boomers? The Colorado Caribous?) and catastrophic TV ratings. It's a fascinating story, if only as a reminder that soccer did have its cultural moment in America, but the slick presentation glosses over conflicting accounts from many of the talking heads and lays too much of the club's downfall at the feet of egomaniac striker Chinaglia. Once In A Lifetime is less a proper documentary than an extended VH1 Behind The Music episode, but there's only a little bit wrong with that.