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What fans can expect as the second week of World Cup games kicks off

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The World Cup is rolling along, heading into the final games of the group stage. So far, we soccer fans have had it all - a fair share of upsets, close calls, some absolutely beautiful goals scored. Here to make sense of what we have seen and what we might expect in the coming days is Roger Bennett, co-host of "Men In Blazers" and co-author of the book "Gods Of Soccer." Roger Bennett, welcome back.

ROGER BENNETT: Mary Louise, it's a joy to be with you.

KELLY: All right. So we are now just a smidge over a week into the tournament. Everyone has played two matches. I'm going to put you on the spot and ask, what has surprised you so far?

BENNETT: Well, it's been a wide-open tournament. Powerhouse nations have been embarrassed by teams who are like the football world's equivalent of Scrappy Doo. Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia. Germany lost to Japan. It's been chaos on the field, chaos off it. The choice of Qatar, controversial host...

KELLY: Yeah.

BENNETT: ...Has made this the most single political and politicized World Cup of all time. And so you've had Qatari security waging war on rainbow symbols to prevent the optics of attacks from Qatar's LGBTQ rights record. And it's just opened up a can of worms - Iranian fans bringing banners into the stadium for Women, Life, Freedom; Croatian fans taunting Canadian goalkeepers by holding the village that their family were exiled from as a Serb in Croatia. You got Qataris promoting Palestinian independence. Just everybody is using this to protest and flex and lay political body blows on everyone else.

KELLY: And just...

BENNETT: And global football...

KELLY: Yeah.

BENNETT: ...Has become a mirror that reflects the world's light and darkness.

KELLY: Just one quick question on the politics, and then I need to get us to the actual soccer. The politics - I mean, there's always politics at the World Cup. Does this feel like par for the course, or does this year feel like something unusual in terms of the degree to which we're watching politics play out on the pitch?

BENNETT: I have never seen such a geopolitically fraught tournament. And then you have Serbian players unfurling a banner which attacks Kosovo's freedom. You have press conferences in which the American players are asked by angry Iranian journalists to defend both inflation in America and the race record in America. Football players now have to be not just good on the field, but they essentially have to be well-versed in global politics if they are to make it through this tournament, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right. Speaking of being good on the field, let's talk about the U.S. team, your baby eagles, as you call them. They are playing again tomorrow. They are playing Iran. The U.S. has to win. Am I right or wrong?

BENNETT: You are right. They played two games, two draws - a draw that felt like a loss because we conceded late to Wales and the draw that felt like the win because we outplayed mighty, mighty England. Third game tomorrow - win, and we make it through to the knockout round. But we're facing Iran, who are a team in turmoil playing against the backdrop of their own nation's chaos.

KELLY: Yeah.

BENNETT: And they are a good team. We are better as individuals. But if we can hold on the - focus on really the game at play rather than the geopolitical nightmare that's unspooling off it, then I have confidence that we'll be talking again this tournament joyfully, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Very briefly, I got to ask you about Lionel Messi, maybe the biggest star out there. On Twitter, you described his playing as an epic right up there with "The Odyssey." Briefly make the case.

BENNETT: I don't like to be hyperbolic. You know that about me. Thirty-five, fifth World Cup - you know, he's on a quest to cement his legend as the game's GOAT. His team had lost the first game - had to be Mexico, was struggling. And in the 64th minute, he lashed the ball home from a long distance.

KELLY: All right.

BENNETT: Just excellent under pressure and with the world watching, it is - it's "Beowulf," Virgil's "Aeneid," Mary Louise.

KELLY: Not hyperbolic at all. That is Roger Bennett, co-host of "Men In Blazers" - always a pleasure.

BENNETT: Courage (ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mallika Seshadri
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.