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Michelle Thomas

Published May 19th, 2006 | by Michelle Thomas

Once In A Lifetime Review

Director: Paul Crowder and John Dower Rating: 4/5

I don’t know about you, but the United States of America is not normally a country I associate with the beautiful game. Growing up in the 70s, us kids were briefly crazy about the Harlem Globetrotters, who were a five minute wonder with their own animated tv show. But while we were falling for the charms of basketball, America was indulging in a love affair of its own, with the game they call soccer.

It all began with a man called Steve Ross, who ran Warner Communications. Ross was the Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch of his day, a player who owned record companies and film studios and decided one day in 1971, as you do if you’re a millionaire, that he wanted to buy a soccer team. His eye fell on a team of amateurs called the New York Cosmos who were, frankly, pretty poor by any standards, but he bought them anyway. When they rather dismally failed to set the world on fire, Ross decided that he could buy in talent, and set his eyes on the best. In rapid succession he recruited Pele (a massive coup), the Italian striker Giorgio Canaglia, and German captain Franz Beckenbauer with the lure of lucrative contracts.

With their stars firmly in place, the Cosmos set out to conquer the world. They toured Europe and swiftly built a fanbase that included film stars, rock stars and politicians. Henry Kissinger was instrumental in helping Ross secure Pele’s services. Pele, as a living legend and ambassador for the game, was a key element of the Cosmos’ success, though he was past his prime. The film underlines Pele’s cultural importance when we see him mobbed at, of all things, a baseball game; he also seemed like a lot of fun. These star footballers really were the precursors of today’s stars, living the life of Riley (who was this lucky person, anyway?) hanging out with celebs, drinking and (probably) drugging and partying at Studio 54. Being with the Cosmos was enough to get you past the doorman at Manhattan’s finest clubs.

Other US teams sat up and took notice and other North American Soccer League franchises began to import talent including, briefly, George Best who played for the Los Angeles Aztecs, Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Rodney Marsh, who tells the story of how they sabotaged Pele and Canaglia’s game by having their flight met by a limo, some blondes, and a bottle or two of Chivas Regal (ah, the seventies. I expect they were all reading Wilbur Smith novels on the plane too). With the Cosmos playing to capacity stadium crowds, Ross knew it was time for the next phase – TV.

I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy a documentary about a 1970’s American soccer team but Once In A Lifetime proves once again that documentaries seem to have the best stories and this is a corker. It’s got all the ingredients of a Jackie Collins’ bonkbuster – sex, excess, egos, perms, and a cracking soundtrack that deserves a release. The biggest ego of all probably belonged to Steve Ross, but as he’s no longer with us his shoes are ably filled by Canaglia. In the 1970’s Giorgio Canaglia was tall and gorgeous; the intervening years have not been kind, but the confidence that made him a sporting hero is still there; if anything he’s more cocky and belligerent than ever. Archive footage of his rivalry with Pele is priceless.

Not just a film for football fans, Once In A Lifetime deserves to do very well at the box office. Its worth the price of admission just to see the nude shots of goalie Shep Messing (the man has nothing to be ashamed of). And did you know the US beat England at football in the 1950 World Cup? Shocking!

Related Links:

Team America: An interview with John Battsek, producer of Once In A Lifetime


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