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What we're taking away from the first week of the FIFA World Cup

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Thirty-two nations are fighting for the ultimate prize in soccer, the FIFA World Cup. This year, Qatar is playing host, and one week into the tournament, the big story is the upsets. Three powerhouse nations - Argentina, Germany and England - have struggled against underdogs, including Team USA. Jeremy Schaap is an anchor and correspondent at ESPN who has covered the World Cup and soccer for years. He joins us now to talk about it. Jeremy, welcome.

JEREMY SCHAAP: Good morning, David.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, what a week we've just had. I think we have to begin with Argentina. You know, it's one of the heavy favorites to win it all. It's likely Lionel Messi's last World Cup, and yet it lost to Saudi Arabia. How safe is it to call that one of the biggest upsets of all time?

SCHAAP: Oh, this is a big upset, Dave. You know, Argentina is one of those nations that is World Cup royalty. They won the Cup in '78. They won it again in 1986. They lost the final eight years ago, two tournaments ago in Brazil, to Germany. And in Lionel Messi, they have arguably the greatest player of all time, but he has not won a World Cup. And so this is going to be the last chance, we expect, for Leo Messi. And then they go out, and they play Saudi Arabia, which is not a soccer powerhouse. But this is a massive upset.

FOLKENFLIK: So among those teams that have been dominant is Germany - 2014 champion, perennial contender, went up against - that game against Japan few days ago, and then things came crashing down. Japan won 2-1. You see that one coming?

SCHAAP: No, I don't ever see anything coming. That's why I don't do any gambling. This is a different order of magnitude than Saudi Arabia, Argentina. You know, there's the famous line from Gary Lineker. Football is a game where you play for - 22 men kick a ball around for 90 minutes, and at the end, Germany wins. Yeah, that's the cliche. But it's a cliche rooted in a certain truth. And so to lose to Japan is an upset. But again, it would be a much bigger upset if this were the knockout stage.

FOLKENFLIK: Let's think about a game involving England. They have what - considered a golden generation team right now, semifinalists in the last World Cup back in 2018. And they could not beat the really green, the really young U.S. team. How did the Americans hold them off and play them to a tie?

SCHAAP: You know, there is a lot of talent there. They are obviously up and down the roster, player for player, bigger stars than the U.S. The U.S., though, played very well, created a lot of chances and got this 0-0 draw against this English team. So there's so much to take away that is positive for the U.S.

FOLKENFLIK: Jeremy Schaap, you've covered many iterations of this U.S. men's team since the '94 Cup. Stressing the positive for a moment, how did we get to today? How has the team managed to progress to the place where it is able to play, you know, a top-tier team like England to a draw and vie to progress to the next round?

SCHAAP: The U.S. did not qualify for the World Cup for 40 years, from 1950 to 1990. And in 1990, you know, we went to Italy, and we were just happy to be there. Then we were the host the next time around and reached the knockout stage and beat Colombia along the way. And in '98, the team was terrible and finished last in the tournament in France. Four years later, you know, the team reached the quarterfinals, and then it's been a back-and-forth, one step forward, two steps back. Last time, of course, the U.S. didn't qualify at all for the World Cup, which was shocking. And in terms of the players on this U.S. roster now who are playing with big club teams in Europe who have talent, it's a whole different world than it was 30 years ago.

FOLKENFLIK: So looking ahead to the match against Iran and what's to come, if the U.S. doesn't win, it's out of the tournament. Given the week we've just witnessed, how safe is it to make any predictions?

SCHAAP: It's not safe at all. There is a feeling among American fans always, like, we're the U.S. We've been growing. We've been growing our domestic league for the last quarter century. All these reasons - like, we should beat Iran, which was the feeling in 1998 when we played Iran in France, and we lost. Would I be shocked if Iran beats the U.S.? No. Iran is tough. I think it'll be a hard-fought game. And I'm still thinking that the U.S. will squeak by.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Jeremy Albert Schaap of ESPN. Jeremy, thanks so much for joining us.

SCHAAP: All right, got the middle name. Thank you, David Bernard Folkenflik. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.