World Cup

Roger Bennett On Squaring The Joy And Pain Of The World Cup

“This will be a surreal World Cup from a footballing perspective.”

Roger Bennett, co-host of the soccer podcast Men in Blazers, introduces the video game FIFA 18 at th...
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Roger Benett is unsettled by the moral bankruptcy of World Cup 2022. As the co-host of the World Corrupt podcast which explores the tournament’s ethical complexities and founder of Men In Blazers, the largest soccer-focused media company in North America, he pays close critical attention to all things football — especially the biggest tournament in the world. He’s completely aware of all the controversy wrapped up in the Qatar-hosted cup.

Still, he’s not going to turn away from the spectacle. In Bennett’s experience, the World Cup brings so much joy and meaning that it’s worth paying attention to, even if his feelings about the tournament are intensely conflicted.

“The true joy to me is an awareness that for a month, we are about to make deeply powerful, collective memories,” Bennett says. “Joyful ones. Ones of challenge. Ones that feel so dark at the moment but so meaningful in hindsight.”

This meaning is front and center in new book Gods of Soccer, which explores the 100 players he and his associates at Men In Blazers consider the greatest of all time. They are players that have captivated his imagination over the years as he wanted the sport with his father and now with his children.

“It's been said that football is a game of fathers and daughters, mothers and sons. Grandparents connect cross-generationally with their grandkids, making deeply profound, formative, transcendent memories together.”

Fatherly caught up with Bennett to talk about the World Cup and what he’s looking forward to most about the tournament.

Why does the World Cup captivate us on a scale no other sporting event is able to reach?

For me, the single greatest joy of the World Cup is the powerful collective memory that it allows you to create at the moment. Memories that you are totally aware that you are making instantaneously with millions and millions of massed humanity around the world. I think there's no more powerful device to speak to so many people who, like myself, mark my life by World Cups.

What’s your earliest World Cup memory?

The first World Cup I remember was Argentina in 1978. There wasn't a lot of live football on television in England back then, so to have a month of football on TV was just mind-blowing. It was like gaining a visit to the Wonka factory every day.

That World Cup was such a cultural juxtaposition. English football was muddy, violent, and clumsily played by bald men just kicking the crap out of each other. And it was set against the beauty and skill of Argentina where when the players took the field, 1000s of fans threw streamer rolls. It was a Technicolor explosion of passion and wonder. I watched every kick of every game with my father, and ultimately that is the joy of football.

Indications are that World Cup viewership is going to be strong, but at the same time, fans are increasingly conflicted since FIFA, in general, and this World Cup, in particular, are so problematic. How do you square the tension there?

It's a very hard one. I can't tell anybody how to square the circle. Ultimately, football is just a mirror that's held up to society. I've always thought that was a wonderful thing. When France won the World Cup in 1998 with Algerian Frenchman Zinedine Zidan, that team was the face of a modern, eclectically diverse, multi-racial France that was joyously received in the hour of victory. That was deeply profound, and it seemed wonderful.

But ultimately, it still is a mirror to society and the world that surrounds it. And as the world has gotten ever more chaotic and challenged, it’s buckling with complexity. Football remains a reflection of that, even if we don't like what we see in that mirror.

How has it come to this?

This World Cup is probably the most craven example of a world cup awarded by corruption.

We have this reality where the World Cup has gone to a state that FIFA’s own analysts indicated was a high risk in every regard. Only FIFA can say why they ignored that analysis, but what we know for certain is that many of the members who voted to award this tournament are corrupt. And so the World Cup will take place in a state smaller than Connecticut, in a footballing nation that’s never qualified for it before and where homosexuality is illegal.

LGBTQ fans don't really know exactly where they stand if they're traveling to the tournament. And since the tournament was awarded, 6500 foreign workers died building the roads, the hotels, the infrastructure, and the stadium where we're going to watch these games.

FIFA should be safeguarding the game. It shouldn’t be putting fans in a moral conundrum. FIFA shouldn't be putting the players in a situation where they now have to work out what they say as spokespeople for geopolitics. It's sullying the game we love in the most craven ways possible.

What’s your advice to fans on how to approach this World Cup?

On the one hand, savor every minute of it. After everything we experienced through the pandemic, seeing anybody kick a football is something I will never take for granted again. We've been through so much since the last World Cup.

But admittedly, this will be a surreal World Cup from a footballing perspective. It's almost a split-screen experience. You have to be able to cognitively retain a sense of the horror at decisions that were made off the field.

Despite all of that, what are you looking forward to most about this World Cup?

I'm looking forward to watching Lionel Messi — who has tried and failed to win this tournament — play in his final World Cup. It's as if the Argentinian jersey is made of chainmail. He’s gotten to the final, but it always ends with tears dripping down his face. The pressure has just been too much. So watching him will be truly remarkable.

But the anticipation of the unknown is also incredible. The joy of the World Cup is that there can be players whose names almost none of us know right now who will do something transcendent — with the world watching — under a crucible of pressure. And within seconds, kids in schoolyards across the globe will be shouting out his name and trying to copy the spinning overhead roundhouse kick that he volleyed 50 yards to propel his team to glory.

Do you have any specific memories of watching the World Cup with your dad?

One of my greatest and sharpest, and clearest memories of the World Cup is Diego Maradona in 1986. His football career really was like the last scene ultimately of Scarface but played out on the football field. And in 1986, he played for Argentina against England in a game that took place in the shadow of the Falkland war. And he destroyed us once by scoring a goal with his hand. And then, while we were still reeling from the injustice of that wrong, he scored the most spectacular goal I've ever witnessed with my own eyes, even to this day. He single-handedly destroyed an entire team of my English heroes. I thought they were Gods, but he all showed us they had clay feet.

I ran outside in howling agony upon defeat and smashed the football through a window. And my dad, who was quite a stern gentleman and would normally have gone mad with that completely insane act of irrational venting on my part, just stuck his head through the broken window as the glass was still tinkling down. And he simply said to me, “I understand. I understand.”

It is still, to this day, probably the greatest moment of parenting I've ever seen.

Did you still have that ball?

No. (laughs) But hanging on my office wall, I have a photograph signed by Maradona himself handling the ball in. It just goes to show you that what feels like the worst, most painful, most excruciating experience as you live through it can actually become the most profound. It's one of my favorite footballing memories because it reminds me of how deeply at the moment you feel things, how it shapes you, and also how, at the end of the day, sports is hilarious. The joy of sports is you feel every human emotion possible, but you walk away intact. I have that photograph up to me as a reminder to keep everything in perspective.