What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Skeptical about World Cup excitement? Here’s what to watch

The men's World Cup is in full swing in Russia, and the field of 32 nations has been whittled down to eight, with underdogs eliminating some of the tournament favorites. William Brangham talks with Sebastian Abbot, the author of "The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer's Next Superstars."

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The men's World Cup is in full swing in Russia, and the field of 32 nations has now been whittled down to eight.

    The early rounds produced penalty shoot-outs and late-game dramas, while underdogs have eliminated some of the tournament's favorites.

    William Brangham has more on the action from soccer's biggest stage.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy. It has been an incredibly exciting World Cup thus far.

    Today, Sweden beat Switzerland and England knocked off Colombia to solidify the final eight in the quarterfinals.

    To take a quick look at this point in the tournament, I'm joined by Sebastian Abbot. He's the author of "The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer's Next Superstars," which is all about talent scouting and development of young players in Africa.

    So, Sebastian Abbot, thanks for being here.

    This has been such an exciting World Cup so far. What stands out to you?

  • Sebastian Abbot:

    I mean, it's been one of the best World Cups I can remember.

    There have been so many last-minute goals, so many big upsets, Germany out in the first round, you know, Spain beaten by Russia, the lowest ranked team in the tournament. And so it's just — it's been exciting, and I think everyone who's watching has been on the edge of their seat.

  • William Brangham:

    You mentioned Germany getting knocked out.

    A lot of the heavy favorites have been taking it on the chin. Of the favorites who are left, who is considered the likeliest to make it to the end?

  • Sebastian Abbot:

    I think Brazil right now is considered the favorite by most people, with their big star Neymar, the most expensive player in the world.

    And sort of behind them I think would be France, which also has a really star-studded team, but they're both on the same side of the bracket, so only one of them is going to make it to the final.

  • William Brangham:

    We saw also two really of the most talented players in the entire game get knocked out, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

    Great players often don't make it to the World Cup, but how do you explain that those two weren't able to carry their teams the way people expected?

  • Sebastian Abbot:

    I think it just shows how much soccer really is a team sport.

    Both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are absolutely amazing and are considered in the conversation of the best players ever to play the game, but they're just one of 11 players.

    So, at the end of the day, if you don't have the support around you, you are not really going to be able to make it through such a long tournament like the World Cup.

  • William Brangham:

    Your book details the search for young stars across the continent of Africa. And it's hard to not notice that no African nation made it to today. How do you explain that?

  • Sebastian Abbot:

    I think one of the things Africa lacks — it definitely doesn't lack passion for the sport. It doesn't population. There's a billion people on the continent of Africa.

    But what it does lack is the kind of infrastructure to train and develop young players like you have in Europe and increasingly in the U.S.

    And so that's one of the things that has really held Africa back. You're seeing a bit more of it now. But they haven't been able to train their young talent in the same way that European teams have.

    It's very important for development of national teams to be able to identify your best players at a very young age, train them from a very young age. You do, of course, have a lot of the best African players who are going on and playing in Europe.

  • William Brangham:

    As I mentioned, your book is about the search for young stars. We are seeing some of them emerge in this World Cup. Who has stood out to you?

  • Sebastian Abbot:

    I think probably the biggest young star who's emerged in the World Cup is Kylian Mbappe, who is a striker for France. He's only 19 years old, has already scored a few goals and impressed pretty much everyone.

    And the interesting thing about Kylian Mbappe is that, even though none of the African teams have made it to the World Cup, you have a lot of players from Europe of African descent, like Mbappe, like Romelu Lukaku, who plays for Belgium.

    And so even though the African teams themselves have not done so well, a lot of the immigrants who move to Europe end up having children who become stars for their new European countries.

  • William Brangham:

    So, for the soccer skeptics who are out there, we have some quarterfinals and then semifinals.

    What's the one match that you would point to, to say, OK, if you're skeptical about the excitement about this game, watch this match and get a taste of what World Cup soccer is all about? What would you tell them to watch?

  • Sebastian Abbot:

    So, I think, in the next round, Brazil-Belgium is going to be a very, very good match. Both of those teams have a chance of winning the whole thing. Both have just an array of stars that play for the top clubs in the world. So that would be good.

    In the next phase, I would say, if France and Brazil both make it through, they're going to be matched up in the semifinals, and that's a game of absolute heavyweights.

    So that — for me, I hope it happens, because it would probably be one of the most exciting games of the tournament.

  • William Brangham:

    Are there any other particular storylines that have emerged for you over the last couple of weeks?

  • Sebastian Abbot:

    I think Russia is an interesting one. Nobody thought they'd do very much at all in the World Cup. They're the lowest-ranked team at the tournament, and they managed to knock off Spain, who won the World Cup in 2010 and is one of the top-ranked teams in the world.

    And so, you know, that may be upsetting for some American fans, because, obviously, there's been a lot of consternation over Russia for a lot of reasons in the U.S., but it's caused a lot of joy in Russia, where the tournament is being held. So it will be interesting to see if they can keep that Cinderella story running.

    So, of course, one of the disappointing things for American fans is the U.S. didn't make the World Cup. The U.S. really should qualify, given the growth of soccer in the United States and the group that the U.S. qualifies from.

    And definitely the audience of Americans that are watching, the World Cup is down by about half from the 2014 tournaments, since the U.S. isn't in it. But I would encourage American fans to tune in, because it really has been one of the most entertaining World Cups in recent history, and I think it will continue to be.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, the book is "The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer's Next Superstars,"

    Sebastian Abbot, thank you so much.

  • Sebastian Abbot:

    Thanks for having me.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest