“The unfathomable, the unutterable, the transcendent and truly cosmic. Football can give you that—a sense of the devout and the shared.” That’s how Roger Bennett talks over a pint in a dimly lit midtown pub in New York. The co-host of Men in Blazers, a wildly popular soccer podcast and accompanying show on NBC Sports, speaks in intricate prose straight off the dome, as if Christopher Wallace hailed from Liverpool and devoted his adult life to delivering England’s Premier League to American fans as a Homeric epic where every character has a Game of Thrones analogue.
“Ultimately, Premier League football is the greatest telenovela, acted out by a Star Wars cantina-worth of character actors,” he tells me, the day before the 2019-20 season kicked off. “The world loves it because it makes you feel feelings that you’re meant to feel in real life, but we’re really dead to. Like happiness, sadness, victory, defeat, glory, and fear of death.”
Bennett will happily tell you that he leaves the Xs and Os to “smarter” commentators on the game, but there aren’t any milling around. His manner is quintessentially English: self-assured but self-deprecating, constantly aware of his own Anglo stoicism—”I’m pretty sure I’m dead inside,” he echoed at another point. “I’m a very negative man.”—while his words betray his passion for language and storytelling. He has that romantic’s appreciation for sport as a human narrative built for answering questions about ourselves and our species. He sees it as the mission of Men in Blazers—his mission, along with co-host Michael Davies, who’s in his second act after a formidable career as a TV producer—to tell that story.
“We’re watching human beings in football make decisions—human decisions—under conditions of hysterical pressure,” he says. “They make simple decisions: do I pass, do I run, do I shoot. And the great players, the truly transcendent, make better decisions more of the time than the merely good. So ultimately there’s a sense of meaning, a sense of humanity, a sense of the limits of humanity. A sense of the transcendent. A sense of the rapture. A sense of the joy. A sense of the fear. A sense of guilt.”
He’s not all poetry and prose, though. “I would fucking love a beer,” he says at one point, midway through a dissertation on American soccer fandom. “I’ll have a Budweiser if I can get one. ‘Ello mate, how are ya? Do you have a Budweiser?” He learned they did not. “That is a tragedy. Can I have a negroni? Do you have one of those?” Ultimately, he was forced to settle for a Craft Beer. We’re all subject to the tyranny of the gastropub, even if you’ve got your own TV show.
In truth, Bennett’s love for Budweiser is not just tied to the fact that the brand sponsors the MIB podcast. He’s got the kind of enduring love for standard-issue Americana that you scarcely find in a native son. Bennett became an American citizen last year, a development he readily calls the joy of his life.
“I walk into supermarkets and it still thrills me,” he says. “American gas stations. The thrill of being here, this place I grew up watching from afar through John Hughes movies, through Miami Vice. That made it an unbelievable value proposition to British kids who grew up in Thatcher’s Britain in the ’80s and ’90s, when Britain—and Liverpool—was destroying itself. It was life as lived in black and white. And watching Heart to Heart, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Starsky and Hutch—that seemed to be a life lived in color. And I swore to myself as a kid I would move to America, that place where life seemed to be lived in color.”
He loves to travel the country, sampling a Jucy Lucy in Minneapolis or braving the hot chicken at Prince’s in Nashville. He says he wants to make a film solely about Arnold’s Country Kitchen in the country music capital, a “coming together of the high culture, the low culture. There were builders who were just off the site, and then there seemed to be, like, local judges.” But in the end, it’s always about the soccer—and of course, he’s taken an interest in the Americans who play it.
While the women’s national team just pirouetted across the finish line and once again welcomed home the glory, the men’s team has been languishing below expectations for years. The men failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in what Bennett experienced as a kind of crisis of faith. He long ago renounced England, and now cheers the U.S. on when the two teams meet. Before they failed to qualify, he made the prediction that the Americans would win a men’s World Cup before the English did again—which backfired a bit when the English made the semifinals. “Soccer: America’s sport of the future,” he and Davies like to say, “as it has been since 1972.” If you ask him, the U.S. men’s soccer problem is down to money.
“You look at an elite European footballer, by and large they are working class, and they play football—and pretty much only football—from the age of 13, 14 on,” he says. “And an elite footballer is breaking into his first team around 17, 18. They’re peaking at 19, 20, 21. The way the old American system was, they’re in college [at that age]. Clint Dempsey’s a great example. Went to Furman. He’s always talked about as a late starter, but the honest truth is he went to college.
“That’s changing, and a lot of money has gone into youth development. But what’s not changed fast enough is that in America, soccer’s still a very suburban sport. And there’s a system called pay-for-play, where if you want to be a good youth player, you are largely playing on a team where your parents are paying for that privilege. I did a study with an economics professor a couple of years ago, where I compared the backgrounds of the U.S. national team footballers with all-star NFL players and NBA players. And it was just a completely different economic background, zip code. Until we really tap into a youth development strata which is bringing in African-Americans and Latinos—which is the diverse, eclectic nature of this country, which is its great strength—we’re always going to be underperforming.”
One success story is Christian Pulisic, the 20-year-old from Hershey, Pennsylvania, who joined the Premier League’s Chelsea heading into this season. Pulisic moved to Germany when he was 16 to join powerhouse Borussia Dortmund, where he rose up the ranks until he was playing in the Champions League—soccer’s highest-level competition—at 17. By some measures, he is already the most accomplished men’s outfield player ever. But everything will weigh on his shoulders when he takes the field against Manchester United on Sunday. Chelsea paid $73 million to sign him and sold their talismanic star, Eden Hazard, to Real Madrid this summer. It’s had the effect of making Pulisic his replacement and, in the process, putting American soccer on trial.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” Bennett says. “If he does well, every English club will be like, Americans, they’re the future. If he fails, they’ll say, Americans are a disaster. If he does well, America will be seen as the next frontier where you can find rough diamonds and turn them into gems. If he fails, it will confirm everything they thought about America—they’re shit!“
“Watching Christian Pulisic take the field—please, God—with Chelsea against Manchester United this weekend,” he adds, “that is like the Aeneid. A young warrior.” Kickoff is 11:30 a.m. Eastern on Sunday.
Chelsea is one of Europe’s superclubs, once a haven for sometimes-pugilistic West Londoners that now counts fans all across the world. It’s also, like other top clubs, now a playground for oligarchs from across the world. Chelsea’s owned by Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch who can’t get his UK visa renewed.
Arsenal, their London neighbors, are owned by American Stan Kroenke—also of the L.A. Rams and various Colorado teams. (Kroenke, known as an absentee owner, earned a signature Bennett barb: “I’m not sure Stan Kroenke knows he owns the club,” he said devilishly. “I imagine he’s at a mahogany desk, constantly falling asleep like a Cabinet member. And he wakes up and he’s like, ‘Which Premier League team do I own again?’ And his lackeys are like, ‘Manchester City, sir!'”) Liverpool also have an American owner in John Henry of Fenway Sports Group and the Boston Red Sox.
And then there’s Manchester City, former also-rans who were bought in 2008 by an investment group backed by the royal family of Abu Dhabi, an oil-rich emirate of the UAE.
“City are like if the Golden State Warriors of old and the New England Patriots had a baby—a bastard offspring,” Bennett says, “and that bastard offspring was showered with petro dollars—Sheikh money.” He genuinely admires the product City produces on the field—”Kevin De Bruyne,” he says, “is an avant-garde appreciator of time and space.”—but there is something about City’s new way of being that doesn’t sit right to a hopeless romantic.
“Manchester City were a team that were a lovable—they were like the New York Mets to Manchester United’s Yankees,” Bennet says. “The change agent for them, it’s impossible to get away from, is the petro-dollar money which comes from a source that wants to market itself as a global branding exercise. It’s nation-washing.
“Football is emotional, that’s why FIFA got away with it for so long,” he adds, referring to the sprawling corruption scandal that engulfed soccer’s world governing body thanks to U.S. authorities. “None of us really want to argue about corruption. We don’t want to ask why we’re playing a World Cup in Russia or in Qatar. And Manchester City, when you look at the values and the politics and the intentions of the owners of Manchester City, to me that’s a sadness and a blemish.”
City are just one of the new globalized vanguard, however, as the game’s rapid expansion has led to oligarchs adopting these giant vessels as branding platforms. When Bennett was growing up as an Everton fan in Liverpool, nobody thought much about the owners or merchandizing or how to break into the Chinese market. The board of directors, Bennett says, might be made up of local businessmen, like a butcher who’d found enough success to open up four stores.
“The game was unrecognizable, the fields were unrecognizable, the level of violence—we used to routinely walk over broken bodies, with your Dad,” he says, referring to the hooliganism epidemic that plagued soccer in the ’70s and ’80s. “Step over a bleeding man with his teeth kicked out. And you wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh my God. What’s happened?’ You’d just gingerly step over him. You wouldn’t even stop the conversation.”
The tension at the heart of the modern game lies between its origins—the local fervor that holds so much of the game’s appeal, with the chants and songs that have rained down from the stands for decades—and its constant expansion as a global product. Bennett remembers when Everton were in the FA Cup semifinal in 1995 and it simply was not shown across the pond. “I had to phone my Dad and have him hold the phone against the radio in England,” he says. “And in those days, transatlantic phone calls were fucking expensive. And now, there’s more football that’s watchable from New York City than from England.”
Men In Blazers lies at the heart of that, a couple of English blokes who know the local roads but have brought a map over Stateside to show the rest of us the way. They’ll spin a little Chaucer, and have a couple Budweisers, while they’re at it.