Roger Bennett’s new book, Reborn in the USA: An Englishman's Love Letter to his Chosen Home, debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Bennett rose to fame in the last decade as half of the Men In Blazers soccer show on NBC Sports. We interviewed him in 2018 about his podcast series American Fiasco, which detailed the fantastic debacle that was the U.S. men’s national team’s performance at the 1998 World Cup.
SA: Good to have you back for an SA Confidential. What is your book about? Why did you write it?
ROGER BENNETT: It's a love letter to America at a time when our nation could really do with one. Soccer gives me the meaning and the structure and the sense of memory and global connectivity. When it all ground to a halt during COVID, there was a vacuum in my life and not just that, but in the city that I love, New York City, the city that I had painted on my wall when I was a kid.
It was devastating in late March and early April. Partially because nature abhors a vacuum, and because when the present is dark and full of fear, I think it's a very natural emotion to revert to the past and move through happier times. I went through almost like an enchanted forest tracing the breadcrumbs; those breadcrumbs were my love for the game and the idea of America. I decided to write a book that traced the contours and the shape of that love.
SA: One thing I like about what you do is bring a degree of sentimentality and emotion to the game in an un-American way. How did you find that approach and how was it received in America?
ROGER BENNETT: It's a great question. It's how I engage with the game. Albert Camus, the writer — before he slummed it as a writer he was actually a really bloody good goalkeeper -- is alleged to have said "Everything I know about human motivation and humanity, I learned by watching football." And I truly believe that. Every moment of the game, you're watching emotions of joy, you're watching emotions of failure. You're watching fear, courage. So the game is a game of emotions and that's how I've always watched it.
SA: How else has the pandemic affected you?
ROGER BENNETT: One of the biggest takeaways for me was when football came back. When Dortmund played Schalke in a fan-less game before they invented sound effects. Would it work? Would it be stripped of meaning? Would we all see the emperor has no clothes?
I remember watching that game afraid, to be honest. There was incredible relief a couple minutes in. It wasn't what you were used to, but my god it was good enough. The most exciting thing for me was the sense of global connectivity. We were all stuck in our homes behind closed doors. I'll never take for granted the power of being able to watch football again after losing it completely.
SA: There are rumors at SA headquarters that you were an early subscriber to SA. What is the story behind that?
ROGER BENNETT: It was one of the first times I met Americans, actually, in 1992. I spent time with American kids. One of them gave me a copy of Soccer America, I think it had Marcelo Balboa on the cover. Didn't everybody look like Marcelo Balboa back then? I was genuinely blown away by it. I adored it. It was so different to the coverage I engaged with, but there was a joy, there was a wonder, and just a deep, deep dedication to the detail. And as a gentleman who loved America — I knew already I was headed there.
It was actually such a relief to flip through the pages. My one worry about America was that the sport I loved was not going to be found there. As I flipped through the pages of Soccer America for the first time it was like seeing the shape and the form of the American soccer loving fanbase.
SA: We’re celebrating our 50th year anniversary — the first Soccer America edition came out in 1971. Did you became a subscriber to SA when you came over here?
ROGER BENNETT: Yeah. To be honest, when I came over, and it was my illegal immigrant days, I spent my days reading Soccer America standing up inside Borders bookstore. I was not quite at the magazine subscription level of liquidity.
SA: You became a big fan of the U.S. national team and American soccer. Do you see yourself among the minority of British expats who support the USA, or do you think it’s common?
ROGER BENNETT: I can't really speak for them. I can tell you two things. The Liverpool of my book is a fairly dark place; we'd been scapegoated by Margaret Thatcher as industry shut down across the North. Unemployment was super high, there was a massive heroin epidemic. Football and music was about all we had.
So Liverpool people have a complicated relationship with England. It always felt like it was the London teams that were more English. And so my relationship with England was slightly weakened. In 1982, I listened to the World Cup song, ("This Time We'll Get It Right"), everyday for probably two months.
And then they shat the bed and were terrible. That was the last time I was fully wanting England. I wasn't gonna Sisyphus this.
When I arrived in America and I saw the 1994 team take to that field, wash-denim of shirt, mullet of hair, the face of American soccer was ginger. I thought, this is amazing! And I fell in love with them at first sight.
SA: Do you encounter a lot of Eurosnobs? What’s your take on them?
ROGER BENNETT: When I was getting on the internet in the early 90s, I'd go on the chat rooms and I always just completely cringe when you put in your name and your city. In an Everton chat room you'd get a Chad from LA. And then somebody would go like, how many home games do you go to Chad? And Chad would go, well, I'm in LA, so ...
Then the "real" fans would say, "well shut up then, you're plastic." The idea is that if you don't travel to away games, you should shut up and not even have an opinion. The notion of plastic fandom has evaporated. The notion of Eurosnobs that was prevalent 10 years ago, I just don't see anymore. There's something really beautiful about the American football fanbase and it is a fanbase, as Soccer America is a testament to — it's been here for decades — I've always been blown away by the depth of knowledge, the passion, joy and positivity and optimism.
I grew up in a hooligan era where it seemed games were just excuses for towns to fight against other towns. Life is dark, and football should be a joy. And a football fandom based out of love as opposed to hate is something I really think exists here.
Matthew McConaughey joins Roger Bennett on Men in Blazers.
SA: Your Twitter profile photo is of José Francisco Torres, the Texan Mexican-American who's had a long career in Liga MX after going there as a teen. What's the deal with that?
ROGER BENNETT: I genuinely never have taken any time to answer it because I kind of like the mystery of it. I loved watching him play, and when Twitter came into my consciousness, he was my favorite player on the American team, I just loved how he carried himself.
So when Twitter started, I chose him, because I've always loved that photo of him. The reality is that Twitter has changed the game for me and for football, and definitely for Men in Blazers, to be able to connect with people during a game and have those kinds of conversation that you want to have, it's so bloody entertaining. Once you watch a game on Twitter, it becomes very hard to not watch a game on Twitter. It's one of the big reasons why Men In Blazers grew and grew and grew. The truth is, I'm a superstitious gentleman. Everyone told me, 'you need to put your face on your Twitter feed.' But I just can't do it. I started with El Gringo and that's how it all began. I don't want to change it — the journey has been so magical I don't ever want to leave him. I imagine I will be riding with him for life.
SA: If he could change a soccer rule, what would it be?
ROGER BENNETT: We're sitting here at a very dark time for football around the world. Three teams essentially have had an arms race financially to see who can keep up with them. We thought the Super League was an idea that failed; the reality is that the "Super League" has been hardened and just exists in the major competitions. Wolves, West Ham, and Everton have hardly brought anybody in. You look at the quite big teams, like Liverpool, who can't move deadwood from the team, players like Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi, who they don't even want but there's nobody with the money to buy them and afford their wages. The elite are so far ahead of the rest of the pack and there's just a logjam in terms of sales that football is in true danger of turning itself into an excel budget spreadsheet.
SA: There is a running joke in many American youth soccer communities that British people are definitive soccer specialists — coaches come in with their thick accents and are immediately given the respect and admiration of a Pep Guardiola or such when they’re not actually very good. Call it the English effect if you want to. Have you seen this?
ROGER BENNETT: Wow. I cannot imagine why you would listen to us. Look at our track record. What on earth would make you think, 'oh, that's a proper footballing nation!' Have I seen it? No, I think the reality is no one listens to us because of our accents. My mother tells me that I speak as if I have my jaws wired together. I think about the English coaches I had growing up: 'Boot it! Kick him!' All I can say is I think we can do better.