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Stars And Champions Knocked Out Of World Cup

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The World Cup is getting serious now. We are officially into the Round of 16, which means it's win or go home for the remaining teams. And indeed, some of the best players and teams are packing their bags.

We wanted to hear more about that, so we've called Roger Bennett, one of the "Men In Blazers." He's also co-author of the "Encyclopedia Blazertannica." He is just back from Moscow, and he joins us now via Skype to give us the latest on the action, like the upset of the tournament that put Russia through to the quarterfinals and sent Spain home.

Rog (ph), For those who missed it, what happened?

ROGER BENNETT: It was a remarkable game in which Spain - heavily favored - played Russia. Spain like to play a game where they papercut opponents to death with tiny passes, and Russia just sat deep and prevented them from coming anywhere near the goal. And then once it went to penalties, Spain wilted, and the result of the game, once they went into the penalty shootout, was as much a lockdown result as, I guess, a Vladimir Putin election.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. Well, Roger, while we're talking on this subject, let's have a moment of silence for the teams that have fallen along with Spain - defending champion Germans - out in the first round - Argentina and Portugal, which have two of soccer's biggest superstars, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo - gone - every single African team. Is there something we should conclude about all these giants falling?

BENNETT: It's been a remarkable World Cup. It really has - the greatest of my lifetime that I've ever watched - just a scintillating life experience. Almost every minute has been truly thrilling. Every game kind of leaves you as a palpitating mess on the floor. And overall, every single team that's come to this World Cup to entertain, to dazzle, to give their fans moments of hope and forge great memories - and that's what's made it the greatest, wide-open World Cup of all time - one that, even now, even teams as doomed as England believed they could win.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK, well, we'll talk about that in a minute. But you know, new stars are rising. I'm thinking about 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe who scored twice and won a penalty for France when they beat Argentina. What about that?

BENNETT: What a gentleman - playing against Messi and Argentina. Lionel Messi largely is seen as one of the greatest players to ever take the field. But France versus Argentina, which proved that big names in soccer do not lead to glory. It's really a collective game, one of tactics and ideas. And in this game, it was Kylian Mbappe, a 19-year-old - became the fourth-youngest player ever to score in a World Cup knockout game - one of them, the moves, that sent France into glory, he charged 80 yards down the field through the gut of the Argentinian team. And I imagine that he experienced more adrenaline on that 80-yard dash than I have in the rest of my life combined.

MARTIN: Well, looking ahead to this week's games, what are you excited about?

BENNETT: Brazil play against Mexico, the last team from our region. It's going to be a fascinating game. Again, you have - in Brazil, you have one of the most buzzed about names, Neymar. He seems to be playing a very different game to the rest of his teammates, who are like a group synchronized swimmers while he's just swimming laps up and down the field. That, tomorrow, is going to be the pick of the games of this next round. And then the following day, England, the team that throughout my lifetime have specialized in only sabotage, creative doom and abject failure will take the field against Colombia. So English football fans are feeling something that they never have in over 50 years of watching, which is a sense of hope.

MARTIN: That's Roger Bennett, one of the "Men In Blazers" and hosts of the podcast "American Fiasco."

Roger, thank you so much for talking with us once again. Enjoy the games. And can we say it together?

MICHEL MARTIN AND ROGER BENNETT: Courage.

MARTIN: There it is (laughter).

BENNETT: (Laughter) Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: All right, bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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