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Summer of soccer: Euros 2024 kick off with Copa America to follow

LAUREN FRAYER, HOST:

It is a big summer for soccer fans, with two major overlapping tournaments. The Euros, aka the European Football Championship, kicked off Friday in Germany.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Here's Wirtz - and it's a goal. They get the lead.

FRAYER: The hosts won the opener against Scotland, five goals to one. Now, being based in London, I'm rooting for England in this one, but I will also be cheering on the U.S. next week when it both hosts and competes in the Copa America. Roger Bennett is the founder of the Men in Blazers Media Network, and he joins us now. Welcome.

ROGER BENNETT: It's great to be with you.

FRAYER: Let's start with the Euros, the European Championship. Which teams are the favorites? What storylines, which players should we be following?

BENNETT: The 2024 Euros - it's probably, pound for pound, the most brutally unforgiving international tournament in the world. I mean, the big dogs are all are worth watching. Germany, the host nation, making their public believe again after a couple of years of darkness. Portugal, deep, strong, have got the wattage of Cristiano Ronaldo, albeit age 39, but still a magnificent, preening show pony. France have reached the final of three of the last four tournaments that they've been in, and their attacker, Kylian Mbappe, is probably the most transcendent force in the sport who only seems to rise to the wattage of the crucible of tournament play. And then you've got your England, who are always poised between overconfident victory and just existential dread.

FRAYER: I keep hearing you say the word believe. Are you, like, never stopping believing? Is that what I'm hearing - a little England anthem (laughter)?

BENNETT: As a Journey fan or as a "Ted Lasso" aficionado, I mean, ultimately, belief and delusion, hope and shattered hope - those are just the only four settings for any football fan. And they're all - they all have their own memory-making glory.

FRAYER: We'll lose on penalties in the final again.

BENNETT: (Laughter).

FRAYER: Anyway, let's turn to the Copa America, which the United States is hosting. Argentina is both the defending champion and the World Cup champion. Argentina is still led by superstar Lionel Messi. Is Argentina favored to repeat? And who are their biggest threat?

BENNETT: The big teams are Colombia and Brazil. They'll both be trying to pry from the viselike grip of defending champions Argentina, who is, I think - Lionel Messi - the greatest thing to happen to Miami since Don Johnson wore dress shoes without socks. But I have to say, just as a totally biased human being, Lauren - I have to say the United States will also be dreaming of being in that final - and this might be a tiny bit confusing for your listeners. But despite my accent, I want to assure all listeners, I'm as American as Kenny Powers, and I love this nation. My way is the United States of America.

FRAYER: How realistic is it to think that the U.S. could land in that final?

BENNETT: American football fans - you know, our women's team win things a lot. Our men's team is a wonderful rich history, but it is grounded in yearning. So the United States - it's the most talented player-for-player squad we've ever been able to draw upon in our nation's history. And the true challenge for this team is to be able to take the field against a mighty foe, a powerhouse, and take the field believing they can win.

FRAYER: Believe. The U.S., along with Canada and Mexico, will be hosting the World Cup in 2026, the FIFA World Cup. Is Copa America sort of a dress rehearsal for that?

BENNETT: Good Lord. I mean, this is a remarkable moment in the United States for anyone who loves football, soccer and the rise of it in our nation. We are entering a multi-year span when our continent is going to be used by the biggest teams, both international and domestic, to play the Copa America this summer. Next summer, there's an enormous tournament with the best club teams in the world playing in the FIFA Club World Cup on the men's side. And then after that, the men's World Cup descends upon our shores. We have the Olympics in LA shortly after that. You know, I moved here in 1994, right before the United States hosted that World Cup. That was meant to turn America into a true football-loving nation as opposed to what it had been, which is like space to Captain Kirk, the sports final frontier. But the growth has been - instead of overnight, it's been slow and steady.

And what we're really watching from this Copa America, all the way into the Men's World Cup and then the Olympics, is the completion of that cycle. There is a delirious, passionate, truly mad deep football fandom that lives here. And I think this journey into the 2026 World Cup will be the moment when the rest of the world sees us as what we are, which is just a normal football, soccer-loving nation.

FRAYER: Roger Bennett, co-founder of the soccer media network Men in Blazers. Thank you so much for being with us.

BENNETT: Oh, Lauren, it's a joy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.