With the European Championships and the Copa America both happening concurrently on two sides of the Atlantic, soccer fans around the world have been loving the past few weeks.
On Tuesday, England beat Germany 2-0 in it's second-ever win in the knockout stage of the European Championship, the last time being in 1996. Now England will play either Sweden or Ukraine in the UEFA Euro 2020 quarterfinals on Saturday in Rome, eyeing a return to Wembley Stadium for the semifinals and the final on July 11.
Meanwhile, Lionel Messi's 148th appearance for Argentina helped to earn the team Group A honors, and a quarterfinal against Ecuador, all while his longtime contract with Spanish soccer club, Barcelona, ends on Wednesday after 17 years.
Roger Bennett is co-host of the soccer podcast "Men in Blazers." He also has a new book out, a memoir titled "(Re)born in the USA: An Englishman's Love Letter to his Chosen Home." He spoke to The World's host Marco Werman about his love for all things American and how it impacted his career.
Editor's note: Throughout this conversations, Marco Werman uses the word "soccer" and Roger Bennett refers to the beautiful game as "football."
Marco Werman: There are so many great stories in your book about your life-long love for the USA. But for those of us who only know you from "Men in Blazers," take us back to the young Roger Bennett at the Liverpool College for gentlemen. What kind of school was it and how did you start fantasizing in that environment that America was your destiny?
Roger Bennett: If you have seen "Gray Gardens," then you will have been spiritually to Liverpool College in the 1980s, but back then, the north of England was rotting away as post-industrial change gripped Britain, and then the city sank. Life felt like it was lived in black and white and I survived by inhaling everything American I could — the books, the movies, the music, copies of "Rolling Stone," the music of Run-DMC, Tracy Chapman, Heart to Heart, "The Love Boat," John Hughes, the Chicago Bears Super Bowl winning team.
So, it was American culture that kind of drew you in. When you finally got to the US for the first time was July 1986. You write to how your friend Jeff picked you up at O'Hare [Airport] and he took you straight away to an Arby's. You got the French dip, first time for that. And you write, "I could have sworn it tasted of beef, democracy and freedom." How would you update that slogan for the 21st century? Like, what have you learned since that first encounter about America that doesn't square with beef, democracy and freedom?
That trip to Chicago was life changing. It affirmed, we've got to remember, I felt I was an American that was trapped in an Englishman's body. And this incredible image of America as a place of courage, of joy, of aspiration, was built from afar. I had never set foot in the country, despite the fact that I felt that I was as American as Bruce Springsteen in my true heart. So actually, going there was a remarkable feat. And it was then when I was 16, that I decided that place was where I was going to live out my life.
But here's what I want to know. I mean, despite your love for American culture, Roger, you've built a career in this country as this engaging commentator on a sport that is mostly not what Americans want to watch. Does that ever surprise you?
In the demo below the age of 30, the game of football, particularly the Premier League, the Champions League, the US women, the ratings they pull in, the commercial business, the American eyeballs on all of these things are soaring. We joke on our show that we cover soccer, the sport of the future, as it has been since 1972. That future is very much now. The reality is, football is a joy, as we're seeing now with the Euros, where two teams take the field and their nation's history takes the field alongside of them. Football ultimately is just a reflection of life. That's how we treat it. All of humanity can be found in a Wu-Tang album. All of humanity can be found within 90 minutes of a game of football. So for us, the difference between the two is effortly seamless.
Abroad, soccer has also gone through a ton of changes. And, I've got to say, it's chastening to see the Euro Championships (Euro 2020) right now, in the wake of this idea that American owners of European football clubs hadn't come up with, the Super League, which would have seen the top teams in Europe competing in one league and kind of choking out smaller clubs. The league disintegrated before it could come together as fans protested across Europe. Roger, what did you make of this recent chapter of European soccer, the Super League? And how did you explain this to an American audience?
Watching this wave of American sports entrepreneurs jump into the Premier League, snapping up prime teams — Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United — it was absolutely beautiful to watch, but the way they moved this year with the Super League in which they really invested heavily in this plan, they thought they could turn European football into the American style, the American system of play, and they invested a fortune into PR, into government lobbyists, they had a massive plan where they thought about every single scenario. The one scenario they didn't think about, Marco, was their own fans turning on them, telling them they didn't understand the game, its history and traditions. And the revolt actually came from Liverpool's fans against Liverpool leaving the Premier League in that way.
Speaking of the dynamic between fans and teams, I'm wondering what you're making of players taking a need to protest racism in the European Championships? Not only that, there's also booing from the crowd.
One of the joys of football is it is just a reflection of the societies, the politics and the culture that surrounds it. Football does not exist in a vacuum. It is a reflection of every nation's truth in Europe, just as the United States is going through an incredible time of turmoil and tumult. And you see that in the European Championship.
I mean, it is a surreal mix of ugliness and redemption with these European Championships. I get kind of a rush following your tweets. And then yesterday's (Monday) match between France and Switzerland happened while I was on the air and I saw the Swiss flags pop up on my Twitter feed, then found out what happened. The Swiss gaining the edge in a penalty shootout, knocking out world champions France. I mean, there have been numerous moments of redemption in epic fashion at this championship.
This championship was postponed last year because the whole European continent was ravaged by the pandemic. So the fact that it's happening at all is a remarkable moment. The fact that there are fans giddily delirious in the stadiums, there's a sense that we, as fans, will never take this tournament for granted again.
Yeah, and it's competing for eyes with the Copa America. It is serious FOMO. What is the headline coming out of that championship in Brazil?
When you talked about how football is just a reflection of the society that surrounds it, it's almost insane that the Copa is taking place at all as one potential South American host nation after another had to drop out because of just the swamping COVID numbers. And Brazil ended up stepping in and hosting it, even though they themselves are in pandemic chaos. So, it's been a muted tournament. It's been a tournament of challenge. It's been a tournament fanless football, almost a throwback to 2020 itself.
One last thing, Roger, we're recording this interview just as England and Germany are heading out to the pitch for their match in the European Championship. A psychic elephant in a zoo in Hamburg is predicting a Germany win. But, win or lose, what are you feeling with this absolutely classic European showdown? I mean, Dunkirk is still in the background, right?
This Euro Championship is a reflection of the histories between the nations. When Germany plays England, let's just say, there's always a lot of history. In fact, I can almost map out my own biography as a kid just through the pain and suffering of one tragic England loss to Germany after another — mostly during penalty shootouts — our heroes valiantly promising they would deliver, hope turning to shattered hope. And there's an old adage that at the end of the day, football is a simple game. Twenty-two human beings kick a football around the field for 90 minutes. And at the end, the Germans win. We are, the English national team, truly are football's version of the New York Knicks.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.