MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The first game of the 2018 World Cup is just four days away. On Thursday, host team Russia plays Saudi Arabia and officially launches this once-every-four-year festival of glory and heartbreak that will be followed on every conceivable device, big screen, tiny TV, mobile devices, anything else people can rig up all over the world, including right here in the U.S., where fans of the men's game will have to find other teams to root for because the U.S. men did not qualify for the World Cup this time. It's a setback for a sport that was starting to gain in popularity after the last World Cup featuring a surprisingly good showing from the U.S. team and gave American spectators a new reason to watch the games.
A reason, shall we say, in addition to our next two guests, who may have done as much as anybody to ignite soccer fever in the U.S. Who else could we be talking about but "Men In Blazers," Roger Bennett and Michael Davies aka Rog and Davo for the uninitiated? They are the two super soccer fans behind the popular podcast and TV show called "Men In Blazers," and they have also just - I don't know if authored is the right word. They've published the colorful book "Encyclopedia Blazertannica: A Suboptimal Guide To Soccer, America's Sport Of The Future Since 1972."
And Roger Bennett and Michael Davies join us now from NPR's New York and Culver City bureaus respectively. Thank you so much for joining us.
ROGER BENNETT: Oh, Michel, it's an honor to be with you.
MARTIN: Well, let's just dive right in like Cristiano Ronaldo after a gentle pat on the face from an opposing player.
MARTIN: So starting with the upcoming World Cup hosted by Russia this year, coming in the wake of a FIFA scandal several years ago, the Russian Olympic doping scandal. So, Rog, you want to start? What's the mood going into this year's games?
BENNETT: Well, World Cups come along every four years. For Michael, myself, for millions of football lovers across America, they form the spine to our lives, the collective memory that we share. I will say the fact that this World Cup is taking place in rogue state Russia, definitely a slight blemish, akin to FIFA giving Mussolini the 1934 World Cup, won by - surprise, surprise - Italy, giving the military junta in Argentina the 1978 World Cup, won - surprise, surprise - by Argentina. And this one, 2018 in Russia, I don't think Russia are going to win it. They are probably the worst host since Seth MacFarlane at the Oscars.
MICHAEL DAVIES: I agree that Russia aren't going to win it, but it's a very wide-open World Cup.
MARTIN: On a serious note, given that, you know, Russia is not a place that's known for its racial sensitivities, I just have to ask, you know, what kind of reception are these international teams going to face? What are we going to see?
DAVIES: I think this is one of the fascinating questions going into this World Cup - Russian stadiums, Russian fans and Russian hardcore ultra-hooligan groups have routinely abused players of African origin. And we don't know what it's going to be like not only for the players for the abuse that they might receive but also fans in the stadium.
BENNETT: I will say, before every World Cup, there's always a incredible undertow of dark stories. I mean, Brazil was meant to just the most violent country in the world. I was at Ukraine for the Euros before that where it was all about racism and hooligan threats. The violence is very real. Russian football is pockmarked by a nefarious strain of far-right hooligan groups trained in mixed martial arts scarred the last big tournament in France, where they attacked English fans with hammers. In almost every World Cup, these things are such awful corporate marketing events that the worst-case scenario rarely happens. We will see exactly what happened. We will always hope for the best.
MARTIN: So, Roger, if it's not too painful - because it certainly will be for some - could you just remind people who haven't followed it why the U.S. men are not contenders? I mean, obviously because they didn't qualify. But is there something bigger to be said about American men's soccer?
BENNETT: To my horror, last October, the U.S. needing only a tie in the worst team in the region left in the tournament - Trinidad and Tobago - they just needed to tie to go to the World Cup, they leaked twice early on, never recovered, never got back into the game. And these players, knowing their fate, knowing their reputations, knowing that the whole of America was counting on them, couldn't deliver and they were knocked out. Big lesson being never play two countries again at the same time, Trinidad and Tobago. Just play one country. Don't get cocky, kid. But the honest truth is partially the coaching, partially some would say an arrogance of the players, locker room disharmony. It was a confluence of tiny little awful decisions that led to one big, horrific setback for America.
Having said that, I have been through just the seven stages of grieving about the U.S. not qualifying. It hit me very hard. And even though they are not in the World Cup in Russia 2018, I still fully believe somehow, with our ingenuity - we-put-a-man-on-the-moon America, we-put-a-Starbucks-on-every-street-corner-in-the-world America - I still believe somehow America is going to win the World Cup in 2018.
MARTIN: OK. I'm trying to process that (laughter).
DAVIES: Yeah. See what I deal with, Michel? See what I deal with?
MARTIN: Maybe you want to take this one. Give us some sense of who we might keep an eye on.
DAVIES: I mean, everybody will tell you who the favorites are. It's going to be Germany. It's going to be Brazil. It's going to be Spain. It's going to be Argentina. But I like some of the dark horses, teams like Belgium, a collection of incredible players who don't really have a tie together and seem to get it together when it comes to major tournaments. I like Denmark. I think they're a very interesting team. And if Mo Salah gets back fit after the shoulder injury that he sustained during the Champions League final, just watch this little lovable man light up this World Cup. I'm not sure he can take Egypt all the way, but he can take them on a run in the tournament.
BENNETT: He's like an ewok, joyous creature that slays all comers. Egypt, absolutely phenomenal.
MARTIN: If we want to impress our friends at watch parties, is there a bit of soccer knowledge that we could just sort of bust out?
DAVIES: I think heavy talk about the video assistant referee, VAR, which is going to be introduced during this World Cup and just saying, yeah, I wonder what kind of decisions we're going to go and see and how that's going to affect. I think the fact that no South American team has ever won a World Cup in Europe, that's a good one. And just this - the enjoyment of waiting for England to fail spectacularly always goes down well in America.
MARTIN: Roger, do you want to add a bit?
BENNETT: I think just choosing that team, just having that team choose you, to look at these 32 teams, any one of which can win. All right, 31 teams and England. And to savor the moment. Iceland, this tiny nation, smallest nation ever to take to the World Cup, 325,000 people. And despite that, they have fielded this collective tenacious group of footballers who truly believe Viking blood flows through their veins. Their manager is a part-time dentist. Heimir Hallgrimsson is his name, lives on an island with eight puffins for every human being. He loves doing root canal. It's his de-stresser. And he is going to lead that nation out into World Cup play, Iceland against Lionel Messi's Argentina. What a story. What a feeling. What human emotion, which ultimately is for Michael and myself exactly what the World Cup's all about.
DAVIES: And puffins.
MARTIN: And puffins. That's Roger Bennett and Michael Davies, Rog and Davo, hosts of the podcast, the TV show "Men In Blazers" and authors of the new book "Encyclopedia Blazertannica." Thank you both so much for speaking with us once again. Good luck. Can't wait to watch you. You know, keep us posted.
BENNETT: Oh, Michel, courage.
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