ILLUSTRATION BY TONY RODRIGUEZ
When the World Cup begins in Russia this month, the United States will be absent, having failed to qualify for the first time since the Reagan Administration. The geopolitical backdrop makes the tournament even more unsavory for American fans. “It’s going to be very Putin-y,” says Roger Bennett, the cohost of the soccer podcast and NBC show Men in Blazers, as he sips coffee in the “panic room” of the show’s Manhattan studio. “The flavor,” chimes in his partner, Michael Davies, on the phone from LA, “is going to be Putin-esca.”
Bennett, 47, a journalist and documentarian, and Davies, 52, a television producer whose credits include the British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, first met at a wedding that had been cruelly scheduled on the day of the 2006 World Cup final. Commiserating at the bar, they found they had much in common: Both had moved from England to America during their formative years, and both were instantly charmed by American broadcasting culture—especially the natty network blazers. Since founding their podcast in 2010, they’ve become something like the Car Talk guys of soccer, irreverent hosts who analyze and gently satirize the beautiful game and its sometimes lurching progress in their adopted country. “Just as space has been Captain Kirk’s final frontier,” they note, “America has been football’s.”
For American fans looking to make sense of the World Cup in these strange times, the MiB, as they call themselves, make genial guides—both on their shows and in their new book, Encyclopedia Blazertannica: A Suboptimal Guide to America’s “Sport of the Future” Since 1972, which they insist was ghostwritten by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the self-mythologizing Swedish superstar who refers to himself in the third person and has a penchant for scoring goals with bicycle kicks. “Zlatan, he was very easy to work with,” Bennett says.
“He did a nice job with the ‘Z’ entries,” Davies adds.
The book, they note, is “about football, love, First World War poetry, kitchen hardware, Scotch, and death.” It’s also a reminder that the World Cup is a walk down the tunnel of the past. “My approach is best summed up by Simon Kuper,” says Bennett, referring to the English soccer writer: “‘When two teams take to the field in the World Cup, their histories take the field with them.’”
What does history tell us about this year’s field? The favorite, Germany, has advanced to 10 of the last 13 World Cup semifinals and has a fraught rivalry with just about every powerhouse in Europe. “I sort of feel that German athletes do not have the imagination to lose,” says Davies. “They’re so unshakable. It’s what makes Germany the engine of Europe. They’re perfectionists. Everything in Germany works superbly.”
The Men in Blazers think less highly of some of the other contenders. “Except for when they hosted the tournament in 1998, I think France has shown themselves to be specialists in World Cup failure,” Davies sneers. Spain, whose diminutive midfielders reinvented the game with tiki-taka, a system of rapid-fire passing in tightly knit triangles (“Imagine a midfield of scheming Tyrion Lannisters,” Bennett writes in the book), is desperately in need of a striker. And Brazil has become overly reliant on “the roguish, cyberpunk charisma of Neymar,” the team’s often-injured superstar.
In fact, Bennett suggests that this World Cup may favor the Cinderellas. “These teams where there’s a unified focus and belief, a desperation, a hunger—they can go deep,” he says. “This is going to be the World Cup of wonderful chaos. On the field, there are teams who will giant-kill.”
One of those giant-killers could be Iceland, which eliminated England from the 2016 European Championships. Bennett recalls a recent interview with the team’s star, Gylfi Sigurdsson, after a victory over the Netherlands. “I asked him, ‘You’d lined up against the Netherlands 117 times and never beaten them. Were you like, “We’re going to do them today”? Or were you like, “Holy crap, the Netherlands”?’ And he said, ‘Every game we play, before the kickoff we think we are going to do them.’ ‘Even when you were crap?’ I asked. ‘Even when we are crap, we are Vikings. It’s in our blood.’”
As for the U.S. team, both Men in Blazers are eagerly awaiting the appointment of the next coach and technical director, which will likely come after the World Cup. Davies, for his part, isn’t ready to count America out just yet. “We do believe that if Russia won the 2016 American election,” he says, “there’s got to be a way that America can win the 2018 World Cup in Russia.”