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Q&A: Roger Bennett on His Love Affairs with Chicago and Soccer

Dreams of John Hughes movies and Studs Terkel interviews lured him to America, and the Men in Blazers co-host, creator of American Fiasco, and new U.S. citizen began his journey here.

Roger Bennett (right) in his natural habitat   Photo: Courtesy of WNYC Studios

Roger Bennett is like an industrious midfielder sprinting box-to-box, spreading the gospel of soccer with an energy all his own. The British-born writer and documentarian is best known for his work on Men in Blazers, the idiosyncratic soccer podcast-turned television show, for which he and partner Michael Davies have built a cult following. (Their new book, Encyclopedia Blazertannica: A Suboptimal Guide to Soccer, America’s Sport of the Future Since 1972, hit shelves in May.)

This spring, in partnership with WNYC Studios, Bennett wrote and co-hosted American Fiasco, an absorbing 10-part dissection of America’s calamitous World Cup campaign in 1998. And just over a week ago, he finalized the naturalization process, becoming a U.S. citizen (and appropriately slamming a Budweiser in celebration). With the 2018 World Cup kicking off this weekend, we dialed up Bennett to chat about his tournament favorites, his love affair with Chicago, and the growth of soccer culture in his adopted homeland. The conversation, published below, has been lightly condensed and edited.

When did you live in Chicago exactly?

I moved to Chicago in 1993, genuinely drawn by the movies of John Hughes, lulled to those shores. Mostly by Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I grew up in Liverpool in the 1980’s: the greatest city in the world. It was a riotous time. Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister. She was laying waste economically to the north of England. So in Liverpool, a proud city, a defiant city, there was a lot of social unrest at the time.

And my family story was always that my great-grandfather left Lithuania and was heading to Chicago. He was a kosher butcher, as was my grandfather, and he wanted to move to the hog capital of the world, Chicago. The boat stopped in Liverpool to refuel on the way to America. The Jewish community in Liverpool is full of the people who saw the one tall building on the Liverpool skyline, thought it was New York, and disembarked. So did my great-grandfather. That’s why Chicago always held this incredible grip over my family. We were always meant to go there. It was meant to be our home.

I lived in Liverpool in this dark time. I watched Fantasy Island and The Love Boat and Hart to Hart and The A-Team, and I dreamt about moving to America. Then John Hughes started to drop these films and it felt like life in America, particularly on the North Shore of Chicago, particularly New Trier, was lived in color with exciting feelings! Whereas life in Liverpool was lived in black and white.

Bizarrely, randomly, unbelievably, a Chicagoan just entered my life one summer. He suddenly turned up in Liverpool, this Chicago guy, about my own age. He was there in Liverpool. I don’t even remember how he got to Liverpool! But this kid, I met him in the equivalent of a coffee shop. It turned out he was from Chicago. And because he was from Chicago, we immediately became best friends. I wrote to him. In those days before email, you had pen pals where you’d exchange letters.

And I exchanged letters with him in 1985, the year that turned out to be the Chicago Bears Super Bowl season. Every week, he would send me clippings. American football, as we called it in England, didn’t exist. There was no information. He provided this drip, drip, drip, of steady Chicago Tribune headlines. On Sundays, when the Bears were playing during that fantastic season, my best friend and I would randomly call 312 numbers from Liverpool. I’d just call any number and random strangers would pick up, and we’d say “How are the Bears doing?” We couldn’t follow along, they weren’t on television! And they’d say, “They are up by 14!” We’d be like, “Yes!” and we’d throw the phone down.

Then the big crescendo for me was that [my pen pal], once the Bears had won the Super Bowl, he invited me to spend my summer in Chicago. So I came over, age 15, and spent a summer in Highland Park on the beach. The greatest Chicago summer of my life. I knew right then and there that, as soon as college ended, I was going to come back and live out the dream life I’d always imagined. That was my Chicago connection.

Did it live up to your expectations when you came back as an adult?

I lived in Chicago for just under four years. It was some of the most joyous memories of my life. When I was a really small kid, there was one night I couldn’t sleep—I think I was about six or seven. And I sat up late with the babysitter waiting for my parents to come home. I happened to watch a bizarre documentary about Studs Terkel, and I remember watching this as a very young kid late at night on British television and just being so drawn to the man. I was always fascinated.

I was quite a reader when I was young. When I got to the right age, around 11, I started to read as much Terkel as I could. That deepened my appreciation of Chicago. And particularly through his book Working, Chicago emerged as this city of hustle and dreamers and grinders. It reminded me of Liverpool, everything I knew about Liverpool. It was a hard city, like Chicago can be a hard city. But the harshness of it, the history of it seeps through the city, it just fills up the people. Liverpool and Chicago are both incredibly proud, defiant cities filled with hustlers and dreamers and men and women of action. And I felt very drawn to the work of Studs Terkel.

When I came to Chicago, I had no job. It was tough times. I really had to hustle. I had three jobs. I did a morning shift at a bakery, then I worked in the library in the afternoon. I was a waiter in the evening. Eventually, I worked out how to do some radio work, which I taped at WBEZ. To my thrill, it was in the studio right next door to Studs Terkel. So I got to see him towards the end of his unbelievable career.

To answer your original question succinctly, Chicago was everything I imagined. I dreamt about Chicago. Chicago filled my dreams feverishly as a kid. Every experience I had in that city, the reality met that dream in every regard. From Studs Terkel to going to old Comiskey for the first time and falling in love with Chicago sports. I’m a huge White Sox fan, but I did spend a lot of time in the bleachers at Cubs came. And the Bulls were kicking off—I so admired the career of Luc Longley, his march to glory. He was one of the first guests I had on Men in Blazers; we tracked him down in western Australia… it was everything and then more. I have not lived in Chicago for 20 years now but there’s not a day I don’t think about and ache for that city.

Chicago is a charming footnote in the first few episodes of American Fiasco, when you describe listening to Everton play in the FA Cup semi-finals over the phone with your dad, or watching the 1994 World Cup in Chicago from your dingy apartment. What was soccer culture like when you arrived here in Chicago? And how did you consume it? How’d you keep up with this sport you loved so much?

That’s a great question. So the World Cup in 1994 was an incredible catalyst for the game. It was a World Cup of being there; still, to this day, it’s the World Cup that sold the most tickets of any World Cup, which is an amazing achievement because they have more teams and more games now. But it was very much the World Cup of being there, of attending. Like you go to the circus, you went to a game to see a bear. “See, I’ve seen the bear!” You can say you’ve been to a World Cup game.

One of the more fascinating things to me was not actually getting the games on television live, which was shocking. I remember going to Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap in Hyde Park. What a fantastic bar that was.

Still there!

All the memories. America! A place of wonder. And I remember sneaking in there to watch a game. I didn’t have a television at the time. I got a television in the middle of that World Cup, but for the early matches I didn’t have one. So I went to Jimmy’s and what shocked me was that nobody was there. In England, the bar would have been packed. Who misses a World Cup game, even one with two minnows playing each other? It’s still part of the whole narrative. It shocked me was that the stadiums were so full but Jimmy’s was so empty. It was just me and the barbacks watching the game, which wasn’t even on English-language television. It was on a Spanish-language channel. It was a thrilling moment as a soccer fan but it also showed me how much the sport still had to go.

It was hard to follow soccer back in those early days. Football culture in Chicago, we didn’t really have one. It was one you had to go out in search of. I found a pick-up game that I played religiously at the University of Chicago. We’d play on the Midway there. It was an amazing amalgam of cultures. I remember just playing with Poles and Nigerians and South Siders and southerners who’d fallen in love with the game randomly when they were in Europe. There was this incredible Japanese midfielder, an unbelievable Bosnian goalkeeper. It was like the League of Nations. It was incredibly thrilling for me.

I’d grown up in England where we played football industrially, with incredible use of the elbows and knees: a very physical game. To play alongside South Americans for the first time—their vision, passing, their touch on the ball, their expectations of what they demanded from their teammates. I still remember one or two of the passes I made in games on the Midway, passes I probably made accidentally but they were such that I knocked the ball beautifully into space and suddenly I felt, for a moment, that I was on the same level as some of the South American Chicagoans. I was kidding myself! To this day, it was one of the most thrilling regular pick-up games I’ve played in.

I’ve enjoyed the new podcast quite a bit. I wanted to ask how you came to the topic, and why you think it deserves the full historical autopsy you’re performing?

I’ve lived in America for over 20 years. I’ve just become an American citizen 10 days ago, which is, to me, the single greatest achievement of my life. I love this country, a country which I dreamt about as a kid and which has fulfilled my dreams and then some. I love America and I love the greatest soccer in America.

So when I was in Chicago, I watched American soccer players for the first time swagger onto the World Cup field in 1994, in their stone-washed denim jerseys, with their mullets, ginger of beard. They were so confident, so collectively tenacious. They swaggered out like the guys in Reservoir Dogs when they leave that diner in the opening scene. I was completely taken; they took my breath away. I’m fascinated by these human beings. You know, a couple of weeks before that World Cup, they were living on $5 per diems. Very few of them had club teams; they couldn’t earn a living as professionals. I watched them and I watched the World Cup change their lives as human beings. In American Fiasco, one of the players says that after the World Cup [in 1994], we were driving Porches to practice. We had jet-skis. One of us had a horse farm. These guys, their lives were transformed by that World Cup.

I lived and experienced the 1998 World Cup. In those years between [the two tournaments], many of them thought, as Americans, they were going to do what Americans do, which was win the thing. Americans love winners. They love winners who win big, the Dream Team crushing Angola by 50 points, elbowing players in the side of the head when dunking on them. They love underdogs who shock the world: the Miracle on Ice, Seabiscuit. And the U.S. soccer players in 1995 and 1996 thought, you know what? We’re going to win this World Cup now. We’re going to do what Americans do! Put a man on the moon, put a Starbucks on every single corner in the world. Let’s do it!

I was fascinated by this narrative, of a collection of men, a true collective. Watching as they approached 1998, thinking for a moment they were going to win this thing, and then watching them self-sabotage, almost go on a march of doom, be undone by their own success, by self-interest, by venality. Ultimately, they self-sabotaged their own futures by becoming unbelievably fractured individuals rather than a true collective. That journey… is about soccer in the same way that Animal Farm is about horses and pigs. It’s really a human journey that’s kind of like Apocalypse Now meets Scarface. That’s why we all wanted to tell this story.

What made this story well-suited to the serialized podcast format as opposed to some other way of telling it?

In 2014, I did an oral history of the 1994 World Cup, which transformed American soccer. Before, they were true amateurs. The goal was not humiliating yourself at the World Cup. They lived together for two-and-a-half years, just training every day because no European club team wanted them. I did an oral history in the written form, and when it came out during the 2014 World Cup, it was called “American Underdogs,” and it did huge numbers.

We always joke about soccer, that it’s always the sport of the future. Most Americans, they feel there’s no history, no roots to the game. I think there’s a rich and remarkable history that lives on in this country from a soccer perspective. And I love telling it. That 1994 oral history, it really told me that Americans do want to retrace the footsteps and see how far and how fast we’ve come.

The podcasting format just allows for a deep emotional connection between the listener and the content. Really, a truly intimate relationship. And this story is so personal and so human. The humans in it, they all admit they were so flawed, the decisions they made on that march to doom. To be candid, the last episode—and I won’t spoiler-alert you, I’ll let you believe the Americans still win the 1998 World Cup—but when I heard the rough cut of the last episode, I sobbed. I made the bloody thing! It’s the power of podcasting that truly allows you to have a deep, human, focused interaction with the content. That was the appealing part of it. To be honest, nobody makes better, more intelligent podcasts from a technical perspective than WNYC Studios, which is why this partnership has been so thrilling to me.

One last thing on the podcast: I did always revere Studs Terkel. A lot of the reason I loved his work is that in the act of listening, he exposed a deep humanity in whoever he was speaking to. Whether it was an unbelievable jazz virtuoso like Miles Davis or whether it was a garbage collector, it didn’t matter. He was always trying to expose that human narrative that propels, that motivated the interview subject. The Studs Terkel archive has just gone up online—it’s genuinely amazing. A lot of my attraction to the podcasting form is based on those early interactions and my deep admiration for Studs Terkel.

I had a World Cup question. There’s no American team to root for this summer. Here in Chicago, a lot of people will probably pull for Mexico or Poland. But I was curious if there was a team in the field that you think Chicagoans could relate to, in terms of attitude or style of play. Does any nation strike you as particularly Chicagoan?

Poland, obviously, are going to be a massive Chicago magnet. In our book, we joke about how there is a rhythm to Polish World Cups. I was once told about the Polish approach to World Cups, which has taught to me by a Polish waiter in London. They have Match Day One, the opening game in which everything is possible. The second game in the group is always the Must-Win Game, in which the team’s survival is on the line. And then Match Day Three, which is game of honor, in which the results are irrelevant because the team is already eliminated. I actually think they will shock themselves and throw that ritualized “three-game-and-out” tradition out the window. They actually look bloody good going into this World Cup.

I still think America is going to find a way to win the World Cup, even though they aren’t in it. I believe in America and I believe in American can-do spirit. But I would advise everybody in Chicago to pick a team, any one of the 32 apart from England, who are always guaranteed to let you down.

I will be cheering for Iceland, that nation of 325,000 human beings who have wired their whole nation to create elite footballers. It’s as big as Corpus Christi, Texas. They are a fearsome collective. They bleed Viking blood. Their coach, Heimir Hallgrímsson, has become a friend of mine. He came on our show. A part-time dentist. Twelve years ago, he was a coach of his local under-12 team. He’s going to march out leading Iceland into the World Cup to play against Lionel Messi and Argentina. They truly believe they are going to win that game. Whether they win it or don’t win it, I just admire their collective tenacity. It reminds me of that 1994 U.S. team, who most people thought had no right to be there. They didn’t care about most people. They believed only in themselves, and when that whistle blew, they truly believed they were going to win every game they played.

That mental state, I truly admire. It’s probably the most Chicago trait that I can think of.

I can’t let you go without asking one more question, the question that’s on everybody’s mind this summer. How do you think the White Sox rebuild is progressing?

I love the Chicago White Sox. I adore and revere them. The first time I ever went to a baseball game, it was at old Comiskey. I was so glad that I caught that gorgeous stadium. I fell in love with Joey Cora the moment I saw him play. I still, to this day, own every Joey Cora baseball card that’s ever been produced. When I got to Chicago, the White Sox were a thrilling team. The Frank Thomas White Sox, just a glorious time to be alive. Damn you strike-shortened season! I’m an Everton fan in the Premier League, and being a White Sox fan and being an Everton fan is very similar. Always rebuilding. You feel like Charlie Brown running at the football with Lucy holding it. And I’ll say about the White Sox as I say about Everton: ultimately, you have to believe, you have to dream. Unless you can hope, there is no meaning to life. Hope is all we have. So for that reason, and that reason alone, I’m all in.

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