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Remaining Teams Move On To Knockout Stage Of World Cup


And we're going to get you all caught up now on the World Cup, which is of course in full swing in Russia. The first round, called the group stage, ended yesterday. The U.S. team, alas, is missing the action. We failed to qualify for the tournament. But fans here in the U.S. and around the world are enthralled - among them, Roger Bennett, who also happens to host the Men In Blazers podcast, which is all about soccer, and who is behind the World Cup guide encyclopedia "Blazertannica." He is on the line now from Moscow. Hey there, Roger.

ROGER BENNETT: It's a joy to be with you.

KELLY: (Laughter) It is a joy to have you with us, although I have to start with my condolences because England I know just got whooped by Belgium.

BENNETT: That's OK. That's OK. It was a group stage game. It was a very odd one where both teams almost wanted to lose because if they lost in the next round, they'd arguably play the weaker team. And this England are so young, and they've played thus far with such kind of optimism, with verve and joy. I didn't know what to do with my hands as they beat Panama 6-1. Normally England play football with a sense of self-sabotage and do...

KELLY: (Laughing).

BENNETT: ...With a feeling that we used to have an empire. But there's a sense of optimism. So this undoubtedly, undoubtedly - mark my words - will be the rise before the fall, but it's been very fun watching them.

KELLY: Now, speaking of losing, let me ask you about Germany, the defending champion, which will not be continuing in the World Cup. They've been eliminated from the World Cup in the first round, first time since World War II.

BENNETT: Yeah, first time in my lifetime, first time in the group stage ever - 16 consecutive World Cups. I mean, they're number one in the FIFA ranking. They are, as you say, the defending champions. For context for your listeners, it's a little bit like the New England Patriots suddenly for no reason going 4 and 12, failing to make the playoffs, losing both games even worse to the New York Jets.

KELLY: Yeah, that does kind of put it in perspective.

BENNETT: I was deprived of even feeling schadenfreude. I mean, watching Germany tumble out of this World Cup - it's a greater plot twist than the usual suspects. "Game of Thrones" viewers who watched the Red Wedding - that seemed like a run-of-the-mill kind of nuptial ceremony in comparison. I'm still totally, totally gobsmacked. And even to this moment, I can't believe it happened.

KELLY: All right, let me focus you on the two arguably biggest stars there, this huge rivalry that's been playing out for years between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, one of whom we should say is having a great World Cup so far, the other one not so much.

BENNETT: Yeah, Cristiano Ronaldo is just a perfect human being. He's a preening show pony. Even in the twilight of Korea, he's adapted and found a way to make sure as an elite professional that goals are still coming.

KELLY: And we should mention he's playing of course for Portugal, which would otherwise not be the strongest team out there.

BENNETT: Oh, he makes them utterly, utterly gorgeous on the eye. His nemesis, his rival throughout his career, has been Lionel Messi, this tiny little Ewok, a magical Ewok who has won almost everything in the game with Barcelona. Yet when he plays in his home jersey with Argentina, he's never been able to deliver what the nation wants, which is a trophy. And the pressure on his shoulders - the rest of the team just completely defer to him. And it's almost Shakespearean watching him, a doomed hero. He knows he's doomed. He's Othello. He's McBeth. He's Lionel Messi.

KELLY: Before I let you go, let me ask you to look ahead, the next round, the round of 16. Who's your money on?

BENNETT: America. I never bet against America. I still believe we're going to find a way.

KELLY: (Laughing) The American team that would not be actually playing in the World Cup.

BENNETT: Aside from that, putting aside my new patriotism...

KELLY: A minor obstacle.

BENNETT: ...As a newly - yeah, but we can do anything. We can. The remarkable thing about this World Cup, Mary Louise, is how open it's been. Every team, just like every human being, me amongst them, is deeply flawed. Anyone can make the case that they can win. I can narrow it down to the 16 that are left in the tournament, and I'm going to leave it to you to put your money on who you fancy.

KELLY: That's Roger Bennett of the Men In Blazers podcast. His new podcast is American Fiasco. Roger Bennett, thanks very much. Happy World Cup watching.

BENNETT: Oh, Mary Louise, courage.

KELLY: (Laughing) I'll take it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.