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What to know about World Cup 2022 — and U.S. team's chances to win the championship

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The 2022 World Cup soccer tournament kicked off today in Qatar. The much-anticipated tournament, arguably the world's biggest sporting event, kicked off with a match between Ecuador and the host country. Ecuador won the match 2-0, or nil, as is the custom in soccer. Their player Enner Valencia scored the winning goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: It's Valencia. Enner Valencia has now scored five consecutive World Cup goals for Ecuador, and La Tri are running away with this one right now.

MARTIN: But long before the first whistle was blown, this tournament had been making headlines and not about the sport but the host nation, where complaints about serious human rights abuses in the lead-up to the games has cast a cloud over the event. We wanted to talk about all of this and a preview of the tournament, so we called one of our favorites, Roger Bennett. He is the founder of the Men in Blazers media network and co-author most recently of "Gods Of Soccer: The Pantheon Of The 100 Greatest Soccer Players." And he's with us now. Rodge (ph), long time. It's so nice to have you back on the program.

ROGER BENNETT: Double M, it is so sweet to hear your voice.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. So let me just ask big picture - how are you feeling about this World Cup? And I'm asking because I was reading another of my favorite writers on soccer - not as, of course, as favorite as you - but Frank Foer. And he said something along the lines of, this World Cup doesn't start until Sunday, but I already loathe it. And, you know, tough words. But what he was saying is, you have to know there were deplorable labor practices involved in building the facilities, all these other sort of sketch aspects of where the tournament's being held. How are you feeling about it?

BENNETT: It is with mixed emotion. The World Cup is really the joy of my life. Like millions around the world, this every-four-years tournament is almost the spine by which I measure my autobiography. But this World Cup in Qatar - for your listeners, think about March Madness just being lifted up and dropped in Saudi Arabia - is deeply complicated. And the World Cup was won corruptly. We did a podcast called "World Corrupt" where we did a deep dive into how it was done. And if you layer on to that that Qatar is smaller than Connecticut, so hot that they had to move the tournament from the summer into November, the human rights practices, LGBTQ+ - the welcome of those fans has been up in the air - and then news from The Guardian, who reported 6,500 workers died in making the country ready for our consumption. This feels like a World Cup that is truly soaked in blood.

MARTIN: Human Rights Watch has said that Qatari laws discriminate against migrants, women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, not to mention the restrictions on alcohol, which is, you know, for some people, you know, a part of the experience. So are there safety concerns for fans traveling to these games?

BENNETT: The process has been one of assuring fans from the very beginning that everybody would be welcome. And the beer issue - on Friday, 48 hours before kickoff, it was announced that the beer that was meant to be sold in the stadium and in its environs would actually no longer be permissible. But it's not a small issue, Michel, because for the past decade, they've been saying, no problem. Everybody will be welcome. No problem. Yes, we'll allow beer in the stadium. And for this last-minute change to occur, it's flung up the question of who is really in control of this tournament.

MARTIN: So, you know, it's hard to imagine that everyone does not love football - or soccer, as we say in the states - as much as we do. But for those who do not love the beautiful game as we do, could you just briefly tell us, why is it so amazing? Why do we love it so much?

BENNETT: Double M, this tournament - I've always said that it's like a bar mitzvah that's soccer themed to which the whole world is invited. It's been compared to a global eclipse that strikes the entire planet for a whole month, instantaneously. It's stopped wars. It's brought countries closer together. There is nothing in world culture which creates more of a sense of global connectivity like a telenovela played out live with the players making up the script as they go along.

And the joy of this thing - particularly post-COVID, when we're all locked up and we all felt alone and remote - you know that the first time a player whose name we don't even know yet dribbles past four defenders and curls a poem of a shot into the top right-hand corner, that in schoolyards, in that second, all over the world, children will be running out, shouting out that player's name and then trying to mimic the move that he just did. And that is the joy in our day and age - collective memories that will be forged across the world. And even now, Michel, in the United States, that is the real wonder. There's nothing like it in bringing the globe together like the World Cup.

MARTIN: So tell me about Team USA. Like, what - how - they didn't qualify for the last World Cup in 2018, after a bitter loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

BENNETT: Oh, it's an agony. That's an agony.

MARTIN: But they're back this time around. Tell us a little bit about what we're expecting to see from them.

BENNETT: Yeah, the men are, as you say, entering the world stage again. We should note that our women are back-to-back world champions and just a collective cloaked in glory.

MARTIN: Hello. Just, you know, hello. You're welcome.

BENNETT: (Laughter).

MARTIN: From my gender to yours, welcome. You're welcome.

BENNETT: Oh, God, if our men were half as good as our women's side, we would be possible world beaters. Let's be honest. And do not let my accent fool you, dear listeners. I do come from Liverpool, but I cheer from America. And this young American team - we didn't qualify in 2018. It was a true trauma for all those who love the growth of the game in this nation. And one of the reactions was these young kids - the 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds who were skill-soaked - instead of staying in the United States, they realized en masse that they had to, to fulfill their promise, move to Europe and test themselves, trying to play for the best, against the best. And they've become the most accomplished set of individuals we've ever had. They're still young. As a collective, they are untested. Only one member of the 26-person squad has played in a World Cup before, so they are short of experience.

And when you have that, Michel, you can either be so young that you do not know that you should be afraid, or when you are in that World Cup crucible and you take the field - a very special field because you know the eyes of the world are upon you - you can crumble. I can say, though, that the captain of the U.S. team, a young gentleman, Tyler Adams from Wappingers Falls, N.Y. - I do a show with him every month where he talks about his feelings as he moves up to the World Cup. He believes that they are going to just - to use a Muhammad Ali-ism - open up a can of whoop-ass. This gentleman is fearless. He cannot wait. And God bless, Godspeed. I hope he's right.

MARTIN: So usually there's a team that surprises us and makes it, you know, further than people have anticipated, and everybody gets excited about it. Do you have a prediction for who that team might be?

BENNETT: In my heart, that team, I pray, will be the United States of America. I should also shout out to our neighbors north of the border, Canada, who are in their first World Cup with an eclectic, diverse, absolutely kinetic squad, a beautiful face of that nation for the first time since 1986. But the true dark horse, or the one at least I'm praying for, is Denmark. It was a team who, last summer, in a European championship, their playmaker, their creator, Christian Eriksen, with the eyes of the world upon him, fell over with no player around him. It turns out he had a cardiac arrest with the world watching. He's come on my show since, and he said, I died on the field that day.

MARTIN: I remember that. If you saw that, you cannot forget that. It was just shocking. And - but he survived and he's...

BENNETT: It was - he survived and came back. And he now plays again for Manchester United. He'll be leading the Danes, this joyous collective of human beings, into World Cup play. And, Michel, I am not Danish. I have never been to Denmark. But watching him come back to life - and he said to me, I used to take football seriously. Defeat used to destroy me. But he said, now I nearly died, I just have no fear. I savor every second. And to watch him and his team take the field, almost for their second chance - I know that I and millions around the world will be cheering this little man who looked death in the eye and said, not today and raising a glass to life.

MARTIN: That was Roger Bennett, the founder of the Men in Blazers media network and co-author of the new book "Gods Of Soccer." Rodge, Roger Bennett, thank you so much for talking with us. And, you know, keep us posted.

BENNETT: Michel Martin - go, go, USA - courage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.