City Paper is not for tourists
It’d be difficult to find a soccer fan in the District who doesn’t know who Roger Bennett is. The Liverpool-born and U.S.-bred writer and documentarian—best known for being one-half of the Men in Blazers podcast (and its accompanying TV show)—has spent the better part of a decade engaging fans stateside with a blend of wit and accessibility sometimes lacking in more traditional coverage.
Ahead of tonight’s sold-out Men in Blazers live show at the British Embassy, Bennett—himself a former D.C. resident—sat down with City Paper to share his thoughts on D.C. United, Wayne Rooney, and a host of other topics. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
CP: This is a bit of a homecoming for you. What’s your history with the city?
Bennett: I lived in Adams Morgan for four years, Columbia [Road] and Kalorama [Road], 1996–1999. I actually got kicked out when they turned my building into a beautiful co-op. We unionized and had to get paid to leave. At the time I got $500. Back then I was like, “This is amazing.” I moved in during the blizzard of ’96.
I used to go and watch [English] Premier League football every Saturday morning at what was then called Planet Fred (which is now called Lucky Bar). I’d go down there religiously Saturday mornings. They had the rights to the worst game of the weekend. It’d be like Bradford City against Luton Town. The same 10, 11 expats would always be there. We didn’t ask each other our names. One guy was a chef at the Mayflower; another guy was, I don’t know, a bouncer at somewhere else. We’d celebrate Bradford against Luton as if it was Boca Juniors vs. River Plate. It was just a life force in my week.
It was always the 7:30 a.m. game. Occasionally an American would wander into this bar. In my imagination, this happened all the time, but I do remember a guy one time walking in and saying [in a deeply American accent] “Hey, is Fulham playing?”
Americans would always sit down and start spewing statistics. Americans—this made me realize this—knew more about the game than many English fans, to speak candidly.
I was like, ‘Wow, it’s really amazing.’ I loved it. But the bouncer guy walked over to this guy, slapped him a couple times in the face menacingly and said the worst words you can say to someone in the English language: “Stroll on, mate. Stroll on.”
CP: Maybe those were the origins of “Euro-snobbery” in this country’s soccer fan base, yeah?
Bennett: But see a lot of that is gone now. That’s what’s been shattered. In the old days it was like, “We’re real fans. We grew up with the taste of blood in our mouths, walking over broken bodies to get into [Everton F.C.’s] Goodison Park, only we can own this thing, football.” And that’s what’s changed in my arc of being in America. I was thrilled to go back to Planet Fred for the 2006 World Cup game, USA vs. Italy. And just to see a line around the block to get into it, as if the Beatles had re-formed. That was deeply gratifying, a moment where I was like, “Something is happening here in terms of the mechanics and tectonic plates.”
CP: You were at last night’s D.C. United match [a 2–0 victory over the New England Revolution.]
Bennett: You know, in 1996 I went to almost every [D.C. United] game in that season. I was at the first game—I remember, to be candid, the fans didn’t know how to behave. Growing up going to Goodison Park, which is like a fan culture that’s developed since the 1800s, and to just go RFK on the first day, it’s like moving into a new building with no rules and regulations. It’s like, we don’t have any norms, what do we do with our hands?
I remember watching fans behind me standing around not knowing what to do. And to be candid, it didn’t take United’s supporters very long to figure it out. I watched the evolution of that first season and the stadium bouncing. It was very moving, as someone that cares so deeply about America, and about football, and America’s love of football, to bear witness to [former United greats] [Marco] Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, and Raul Diaz-Arce that season.
I’ve watched those years of glory. And to then come back often through the years and be in that cavernous, rotting old bowl [RFK] which was like Grey Gardens—haunted by memory of past splendor. I wrote once that they had developed a culture of losing and I had all these D.C. United fans being like, “What culture of losing? Four MLS Cups.” I’m like, “That’s not how football works. Trophies in the past do not affect this young team.” I can assure you that [United defender] Steve Birnbaum is not like, “When I have a crisis of confidence, I think back to [former United defender] Tony Sanneh.” There was just a Grey Gardens sense at RFK.
CP: So it’s safe to say the scene at Audi Field was a change of pace, then?
Bennett: I’m genuinely thrilled, honestly. To be there last night, to be there and watch Wayne Rooney, who looked to me, and I said this to him afterwards [that] he looked happier than I’ve seen him in at least five years. I watched him at Goodison Park, when he was just 16 years old and he looked in D.C. as if he was re-summoning his simple love of the game. He’s having a laugh. If he scores a game-winning free kick, it’s amazing, if he misses a one-on-one, it’s amazing. It’s all great. He loves D.C., D.C. loves him, it’s just joyous, mutually wonderful.
I stayed around for half an hour just watching fans leave. To watch fans leave a D.C. United game ecstatic, bursting with energy—I’ve got to tell you I found that deeply moving and great for the city, great for football. A sense of what can be. That was an amazing thing, to watch families walking home having had great memories, it’s a very powerful thing. It reminded me of RFK that first season.
CP: Rooney has certainly changed the footprint of the team in this city. What were your thoughts on his move to the States?
Bennett: I love Wayne Rooney. I watched him when he started out at Everton, I watched him glorious, I watched him frustrated. Back then the guy was fast, stocky, just a carnal force of nature. And then you had the [Manchester] United years which made me sick and sad but also happy for him—playing for a club that were just so dominant in that era. He deferred to [Cristiano] Ronaldo there at times. You see it even for D.C. United, sometimes he’ll pass when really he should probably take a shot. And then to see him come back to Everton wanting a romantic, nostalgic end and then—not through his fault—it just becoming a true nightmare. He was at a club that was just in pieces. And what should’ve been a romantic last hurrah turned into like ashes in his mouth.
So when I heard he was coming over, having watched [former Liverpool F.C. great turned LA Galaxy flop] Steven Gerrard come over and just be confused by the highway system in L.A. Just like, “Animal Style burgers, what is that?” These guys grew up in Liverpool. They are kings of Liverpool. They know every backstreet.
Gerrard was never supported enough to sort of click into L.A. life. D.C. United has supported [Rooney]. The club drives him everywhere, his family are coming over and they’ve embraced the sense of adventure. To be candid, it’s incredibly smart. When Wayne’s life off the field is great, on the field it can be great as well. So to watch him come here and re-summon that joy, that passion, that enthusiasm is amazing.
CP: He joined a pretty bad team. That’s a bold move—most of these elite guys aim to play for teams who are already competitive.
Bennett: This D.C. United team was terrible. And I admire Wayne greatly for coming anyways. He watched game film. He knew just how bad they were. What I admire, humanly, is that he didn’t hide, he felt no sense of shame. He didn’t feel any sense of lesser. He came here. He’s a man who loves playing football and to watch him love playing the game of football again and love leading a team, it’s incredibly poetic to watch.
With Designated Players [a label MLS uses for many of its premier players]—if a DP kind of comes in, takes the $6 million and is just phoning in, all of his teammates will also do that. They’ll be like, “I’m earning $95,000, I’m going to phone it in, too. Eff you.” If the DP comes in—the best example is in Atlanta. The guys who are earning the most money are bringing it in training every day. They’re setting the tone. And everybody is saying, “You know what, I know why Josef Martinez is getting paid what he’s making. I’m going to meet that challenge.”
And Rooney is that and then some. They offered first-class flights and his own room on the road and he said no. He’s rooming with the backup goalkeeper. To me, that is genuinely astonishing. Again, I’ll go back to what I said earlier. He wants vindication and just to enjoy his football again. And D.C. United is allowing him to do both of those things.
By the way, if you’re a player on this team and four months ago you were changing in RFK, and now you’re in a locker room which is a million times nicer than Goodison Park and Wayne Rooney is in it, and you’re winning games—what life are you living? It’s amazing.
CP: Soccer in this country seems to be exploding, but it seems like the EPL, La Liga, and other leagues are getting traction while MLS sometimes still plays second fiddle.
Bennett: There’s two scenarios—being at Audi Field last night, it’s not hard to imagine a world in which MLS grows and flourishes. The battle between MLS and the [International Champions Cup, a series of friendly matches played in the U.S. between European clubs] is fascinating. I think MLS won this round. ICC had a challenging year—you can make the case easily that American audiences have wised up to what they’re watching.
And then there’s a scenario that MLS will be buried alive by Americans loving football—but they’ll love the Premier League and they’ll love La Liga and the Champions League. That’s another potential scenario.
But honestly I’ve rarely been as bullish, because in 1992, the Premier League started and it was a joke, a backwater. Nothing is fixed forever. Fabrizio Ravanelli, the great Italian, the “Silver Feather”—he came to sign for Middlesborough in 1996 and I had a friend over there who wrote to me and said, “I’ve never felt sadder than I do for Ravanelli, who had no future other than to go to the English Premier League. How sad and pathetic.” Nothing is fixed forever.
CP: One last question. The United States men’s national team are still looking for a coach. Who should get that job?
CP: Nobody’s that desperate yet.
Bennett: Jake Tapper.
CP: Who’s your dream hire, though?
Bennett: The honest truth is that it’s an incredibly difficult challenge. The U.S. soccer player is so different, the way their minds work is so different than the European player. You can’t just lift up a European coach and be like, “Hey, this is our guy.” At the same time, one of the weakest things in American football culture is the level of coaching. We do not know what we do not know, still, by and large.
So if we do the American route again, I feel like we’re not going to fulfill the potential. The short of it is you need to look at people who have an understanding of the American mentality and elite football skills, and it’s really a tiny little Venn diagram. That’s why [former Mexico head coach] Juan Carlos Osorio is so oft discussed, why [current Atlanta coach] Tata Martino is discussed.
I’m very fond of the Icelandic national team. Look at what happened with them, they paired a local coach, a dentist, with the Swede, Lars Lagerbäck, who is very somber and has been in the World Cup, knew the elite side of things. So they went with an inside/outside deal. So to be candid, if I was going to hire a manager I’d almost do the double and do someone who had world football knowledge and partner them with someone who had that American knowledge.
But failing that, I’d say Joel Osteen. Maybe Tony Robbins. Oprah. The big names. Regis Philbin. Let’s get Howard Shultz in, now that he’s not doing the Starbucks thing.
CP: Bernie Sanders.
Bennett: Bernie Sanders. That’s when we know that football’s made it in this country. When Bernie Sanders is talked about as the next U.S. national team coach.