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Roger Bennett on his book 'Gods of Soccer' and how he chose the 100 greatest players

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Soccer lovers - you know who you are - get ready. The 2022 World Cup is nearly upon us. This year's tournament kicks off next month in Qatar. It's quite a departure from the usual summertime event. And here to get us in the mood for the World Cup is "Men In Blazers" host Roger Bennett. He is also co-author of a new book called "Gods Of Soccer," which catalogues the game's 100 greatest players ever, men and women. Roger Bennett, so good to speak to you.

ROGER BENNETT: Oh, Mary Louise Kelly, it is a joy to be with you.

KELLY: I do love that you acknowledge right up at the front - I think it's the first page - this is your quote - "some folks are going to foam and fume at our idiocy, which can be the only plausible explanation as to why your favorite player is not included." You're acknowledging people are going to argue about this and that's going to be part of the fun.

BENNETT: Yeah, and that it's ridiculous. There's a football manager, Jurgen Klopp, who says football is the world's most important, least important thing. And to me, that's its joy. So we wanted to stake out our position to tell 100 incredible stories that are told with joy and wonder and reverence, stories of endurance, of tenacity, of glory, and then defend that position with the heat of a thousand suns.

KELLY: So how did you pick? What's the methodology here?

BENNETT: You have your Peles. You have your Maradonas, whose career was like the last scene of "Scarface" lived out on a football field. You have your Mia Hamms - true legends. But we also argued about - and I hope that in reading the book, young readers will revel in these arguments about the more obscure but equally as remarkable - Matthias Sindelar, a pre-war Austrian great who was rumored to have been murdered by the Nazis because of his friendship with Austrian Jews; Briana Scurry, who rose from Minnesota, playing as the only African American woman on white teams to become the first African American woman in the National Soccer Hall of Fame; and players like Garrincha, oft-forgotten Brazilian great who won two World Cups, the greatest dribbler that's ever played the game, even though one of his legs was six centimeters shorter than the other.

KELLY: Really?

BENNETT: These are the tales, the truly great and the ones that we pulled out of obscurity and shone a light on, that make up the book.

KELLY: Only two of the players - only two of the male players who made the cut for your list are actually going to be playing in the World Cup next month. This would be Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

BENNETT: That is true. The only two from the book who are going to be there, but what a pair - and Messi, that normal guy. In a world in which we love our athletes - almost be demigods - Messi looks like he's just wandered out of your local Supercuts, 5-foot-6, squat, scruffy. Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan poet, said about him that Maradona may have played as if the ball was glued to his shoe. Lionel Messi plays as if it were stuck inside this sock. And Ronaldo - really the Borg to his McEnroe, the Fischer to his Spassky, a Adonis, a petulant show pony, a man who we wrote about in the book who looks like a robot who's been programmed to score goal after goal solely solely that he can take off his shirt and reveal his abs to an adoring world. And they are both in there. And this will probably be their last World Cup. And the joy of a World Cup is, like nature, we abhor a vacuum, Mary Louise. There will be new heroes forged who we're not even talking about right now, but the whole world will know their name come December.

KELLY: Before we get to them, just to stay with Messi and Ronaldo, neither of them has ever won. Where do you put the odds that one of them might take it home this time?

BENNETT: Well, one of them may play the United States in the final. That is certain. But I am not going to tell you who will win that game for spoiler alert reasons. Argentina are truly, truly a fantastic team. He has often struggle - Lionel Messi, undoubtedly, to me, the world's greatest footballer, but playing for the Argentine team, the weight of the shirt has almost felt - the pressure has almost felt like chainmail dragging him down. But something has happened in this cycle, and he is delivering just transcendent moments of poetry, a poet warrior for his nation. And if it was of the two, if I was a betting man, I'd be putting all my pesos on Argentina.

KELLY: On Argentina. This World Cup is going to be a big one for the U.S. men's team who failed to qualify, didn't show up, didn't get to play at all the last time around. What are you watching for this time?

BENNETT: The reaction to failure in 2018, a true shame for our nation, has been remarkable. A wave of young footballers in their teens decided almost as a reaction to that failure that they had to leave the United States. And if they were to fulfill their potential, they had to test themselves against the best playing for the best in Europe. And so we have this unprecedented wave of baby eagles, young talents who are playing for some of the greatest teams in the world for the first time in our nation's history. We have players at Juventus, the Italian powerhouse; Chelsea, Christian Pulisic; Tyler Adams, Leeds United dominating in the Premier League. The team itself remains a work in progress. It is so young - really is like a team of babies. We are hosting the World Cup in 2026, along with Mexico and Canada. And this World Cup almost comes too soon for them. It will be a test, a crucible from which hopefully, like any hero's journey, they will learn important lessons that ultimately lead to glory.

KELLY: All right. So 10 years from now, let's say you and I are back here. We're a little grayer. We're a little wiser. We're on the 17th edition of your book. Who do you have your eye on in this World Cup and who might be the next great rivalry? Because, you know, you look at Messi, you look at Ronaldo, you look at such different players, as you say, but they made each other better. They were at their peak at the same time, and they made each other raise their game. Anybody like that?

BENNETT: I love your question for so many reasons, mostly because by telling me that we'll have grayed a little, you're suggesting that I will have hair, which is almost a human miracle - very jealous of it.

KELLY: I'll be as blonde as ever. So we're in the same boat. Bald, blonde - here we are.

BENNETT: Yeah. The joy of the World Cup is that heroes can be forged out of nowhere. If you were to think of young players whose names we will be absolutely turning to ballads and tapestries after this World Cup, it will be a player who - Mbappe is having a rivalry at the club level and will at the international level, please God, for at least a decade to come. Vinicius Junior, a 22-year-old Brazilian blur who plays for Real Madrid, a gent who has a superpower of bending time and space to his will, watching his Brazil, who are the favorites for this World Cup - they seem to be the favorites for every single World Cup - their golden shirts just made for television in glorious technicolor - against France, the holders, defending champions looking to defend their title and become just the third team to do that. The Mbappe-Vinicius Junior conflict is one - that is one of the sole kinds of conflicts that actually makes the world better just by watching.

KELLY: And that is "Men In Blazers" host Roger Bennett. His new book is called "Gods Of Soccer." It is out now. Roger Bennett, thank you. Courage.

BENNETT: Mary Louise Kelly, just hearing you say that word makes me feel so much better. Courage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gus Contreras
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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