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Team USA Readies For Knockout Round At Women's World Cup


Finally today, let's check in on Women's World Cup, hosted by France this summer. This weekend, the tournament entered the round of 16 - the knockout round, a time when players have to leave it all on the field or go home. And who better to guide us through it than our friend Roger Bennett, half of the "Men In Blazers" podcast and a tireless soccer superfan, who's been touring the U.S. this summer to spread love for the beautiful game.

And he's with us now from - where are you exactly, Rog? (Laughter).

ROGER BENNETT: I am in New York City, Double-M, and it is a joy to be back with you.

MARTIN: Likewise. Likewise. So this is the first time we've had the pleasure of checking in with you during this competition. How's the women's World Cup going for you so far?

BENNETT: Oh, it's a human joy. I actually call it the real World Cup because America have actually qualified for this one and are very, very good. So we'll call the other one the men's World Cup. We have finished the group stage. We are in the knockout round now. It's win or go home, and it couldn't be more exciting.

MARTIN: Well, going into the weekend, big news was that for the first time ever, two African teams, Cameroon and Nigeria, made it to the round of 16. While Nigeria was facing off against powerhouse Germany, Cameroon was paired with England, also a top contender. So both African teams now out of the tournament, both having suffered 3-0 losses. But the fact that they made it this far - does it say anything bigger about the women's game?

BENNETT: It was heartbreaking to watch Cameroon today - to watch them struggle against England, to watch them feel hard done to by the refereeing and the video assistant refereeing, which has been a constant thorn as a feature in this tournament in-game. The Cameroonians were crying the decision-making made by the referee, and they probably had a case at some point. I am not Cameroonian, but I felt their pain.

You know, their dreams are as big as the American or English players dreams. Their resources are not. They struggle to even be at this World Cup, Cameroon. They're so woefully underfunded. The players hardly come together to play games. They barely train before the tournament begins. I can say the joy from an African perspective is that fan interest is soaring. And that may be the true legacy of the World Cup runs for the continent of Africa - a taste of the future and all that is to come.

MARTIN: And, you know, of course, Team USA continues to be the favorite, won all of their matches by shutouts. So Team USA plays Spain tomorrow. I guess the U.S. is still a favorite to win. But Spain isn't a pushover, though, right?


MARTIN: (Laughter).

BENNETT: Michel, it's been a joy to watch the U.S., who didn't lose a single group stage game, didn't give up a goal, either. I will say their games have been devoid of suspense or drama. They score early and often. But the reality is, we still do not know how good this team is. They've played teams that are, frankly, just patsies happy to be there. Title IX has given the U.S. such dominance in this sport, which has barely been on the radar of other nations. That has changed. The European powers have all invested heavily, deeply, smartly in the game. And there's so many threats in this World Cup, starting with Spain. So there's many games to go before we can get what we all dream, which is American glory.

MARTIN: I do want to mention, though, that Team USA had success off the pitch, too, because U.S. Soccer has agreed to negotiate with players who are currently suing the sport's governing body for gender discrimination. And, you know, I'm just interested in your take on this, as a person who watches both the men's game and the women's game closely. What do you make of it?

BENNETT: It's a massive issue behind the scenes. Now the tournament's kicked off, football is almost always front of mind for the players. But it really is simmering away in the background. The U.S. women are remarkable. They are elite footballers, elite athletes. But they are also pioneers, not just for the women's game in America - for the women's game around the world.

And, as they say - I interviewed a series of the players in the run-up to the World Cup, and Megan Rapinoe, the talismanic attacking midfielder - she said, we do not feel that we're just trying to pioneer for women's soccer. We feel we're pioneering for women in all jobs in all offices around the world. It's a massive weight, a massive responsibility that is on their shoulders. Ultimately, for the U.S. women, they all agree - winning is the best negotiation, and that's what they're now trying to focus on and pulling off and trying to do.

MARTIN: All right. Big match today - France versus Brazil. How did it come out? And what does it mean for Team USA?

BENNETT: The French team, on whom to - trying to repeat the achievement of the men and becoming world champions, they played just exquisite tactical, technical football. And if the U.S. can top Spain, the clash between the French and the U.S. will be a one which will really grab the wider American audience and fuse it to this tournament.

MARTIN: That is Roger Bennett, one of the "Men In Blazers."

Roger, it's always good to talk with you.

BENNETT: Michel, courage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.