“We want to lighten the mood,” announced Michael Davies on behalf of himself and partner Roger Bennett on a recent Sunday evening as ESPN cut from its spacious, littoral Last Call set in Rio de Janeiro to their claustrophobic bunker somewhere nearby. Davies and Bennett, a.k.a. the Men in Blazers, were referring to that day’s World Cup action and the fractious bickering it had incited on this location.
Lightening the mood has been the Men in Blazers’ call to arms—albeit in a sport where the use of one’s arms is severely limited—since the World Cup kicked off June 13. Whereas ESPN has assembled a pantheon of World Cup legends to analyze and soothsay about upcoming matches, Davies and Bennett each sample a “World Cupcake” and predict the outcome based on what they taste (“cupcake science,” they call it). At every dramatic turn, from a Chilean penalty kick ricocheting heartbreakingly off a post to a Luis Suarez expulsion due to cannibalism, they cheekily intimate that FIFA, soccer’s governing body, has rigged the entire tournament.
“We are not for one second implying that all of this is being scripted,” Davies has remarked on multiple occasions, “but good job, FIFA writers.”
The 40-something Brits, who reside in New York City, have been doing a soccer-themed podcast at ESPN’s Grantland.com site for a few years now. In Rio, at what Bennett enthusiastically refers to as “Copa das Copas” (the Cup of Cups), their daily podcasts and TV segments have made them the most popular European ex-pats representing U.S. soccer interests this side of Jürgen Klinsmann.
“Wow!” “Wow!” “Wowza!” “Wow wow wow!” the pair parried back and forth at the start of a recent podcast after Brazil outlasted Chile in a tense shootout in the round of 16. And that is by far the least articulate dialogue the pair have exchanged all month. Davies refers to their 5-by-8-foot quarters as “[ESPN host] Bob Ley’s panic room.” Bennett described Uruguayan striker Suarez’s dubious defense of his vampiric attack on an Italian defender as “the finest piece of magic realism to come out of South America since Gabriel García Márquez sadly passed.”
The London-born Davies, 48, hardly needs the gig. He produces or has produced a smattering of successful TV programs, from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to Wife Swap. Bennett, 43, a product of Liverpool, is a freelance journalist and filmmaker. The gents, both married with children, met at a wedding in July 2006 on the day of the World Cup final between Italy and France. Because the nuptials took place on a boat, they missed the match—and have been making up for it ever since.
Take Wayne’s World; infuse it with an ardor for “football,” Winston Churchill’s sensibility and P.G. Wodehouse’s love of language; and then don Brooks Brothers jackets. That is the foundation for Men in Blazers.
Davies is the Yogi Bear to Bennett’s Boo-Boo, the slightly more alpha figure who pilots the bus while the bespectacled Bennett clutches a miniature banana (“Brazil’s greatest invention”). While ESPN has inflicted a rash of “embrace debate” shows on its audience in recent years, Davies and Bennett are unfailingly supportive of each other, enthusiastically shepherding both soccer’s and their own assimilation into American culture (their tagline has long been “Soccer, America’s sport of the future—since 1972”).
“It hurts,” Bennett moaned after a Portuguese goal in stoppage time robbed the United States men of perhaps their greatest triumph in World Cup history, not to mention a pass into the knockout round, on June 22. “It hurts like England.”
“It doesn’t hurt like England,” Davies corrected. “What do they say? Pain is the price you pay for love.”
“I love love,” Bennett replied. “I love football. I love America. I love you.”
“I love you,” Davies answered, and there was nothing weird about it.
Like the main character in Nick Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch, the Men in Blazers view life through the prism of football—Davies will occasionally employ an ugly American accent to say “sok-kuh!” They are connoisseurs not only of “the beautiful game” but also of pop culture. After a knockout match between Brazil and Chile, as players appeared on-screen festooned in body art, Bennett exclaimed, “Neck tattoos! It was like a Blink-182 concert out there.”
Men in Blazers podcasts should come with annotations. The first 15 minutes of a recent episode referenced Hodor (Game of Thrones), rapper R. Kelly, Chris Farley, Pete Rose, Sophie’s Choice, Lawrence of Arabia, Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier (an iconic photograph from the Spanish Civil War), Where Eagles Dare, Clint Eastwood, Chairman Mao, Raiders of the Lost Ark, NBA player Mike Miller and Dutch pop star Tiësto.
Dennis Miller in his prime would struggle to keep up.
Of course, all the riffing would be stale jazz if the Men in Blazers’ football ken was not 100 percent pure. They could be professorial or pedantic about their adulation for the game if they so chose, but they prefer to be cheeky and subversive. Hence, while narrating lowlights of England’s loss to Uruguay, a defeat that knocked the Three Lions from the group stage, the commentary sounded a little like this: “(Daniel) Sturridge misses! Cornwallis evacuates Yorktown: 1781. Sturridge misses again! India was given back: 1947.”
Like fellow Brit-wit John Oliver, yet another England-to-Manhattan transfer in his 40s gaining traction with American audiences this summer, the Men in Blazers charm through the art of self-deprecation. A greatest-hits package of their work is titled “Now That’s What I Call Sub-Optimal.” They adore language; Davies referred to the trio of sites for the U.S. group-stage matches as “jungle, junglier and jungliest.” Most of all, the Men in Blazers admire authenticity, which explains how unfiltered endomorph Miguel Herrera, the Mexican manager who celebrated goals by literally tackling his own players, became their favorite character of this World Cup.
“If you love life, if you love joy, if you’re pro-happiness,” said Bennett after Mexico lost to the Netherlands and was dismissed from the World Cup, “you have to love Mexican Hodor…Miguel Herrera.”
And if you are any or all of the above, you have to love Men in Blazers. Even if you still don’t love football.
Chilomboguay: The portmanteau for a trio of South American nations (Chile, Colombia and Uruguay) that, unlike Argentina or Brazil, were not expected to advance to the World Cup final.
Dodgy flapper: Sobriquet for Dutch striker Arjen Robben, whose left arm swings unnaturally as he runs and seemingly hypnotizes defenders.
GFOP: Great Friend of the Pod. A fan of Men in Blazers.
Mexican Hodor: Nom de guerre for Mexican manager Miguel Herrera.
Not in the face: A plea that pertains to all direct strikes, both physical and emotional.
Raven: An email, a reference to how messages are sent in Game of Thrones.
Shass: A weak shot on goal, more pass than shot.
Size the Day: A reference to a malapropism committed by former U.S. men’s coach Bora Milutinović before the 1994 World Cup, the phrase adorns the MiB’s official patch.
Von Trapps: U.S. men’s national team.
War pig: Belgian manager Marc Wilmots.