AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The World Cup begins on Thursday in Russia. The month-long tournament will not include the U.S. men's team, which was knocked out in the qualifying round. Jim O'Grady from member station WNYC has been asking fans of the 32 teams that are playing, why should Americans root for your country?
JIM O'GRADY, BYLINE: First, we asked listeners to call in with their suggestions.
JOHN FLACK: Hey, my name is John Flack. I'm from Manhattan.
O'GRADY: Which ranged from the weirdly geostrategic...
FLACK: I'm rooting for Costa Rica because they don't have an army.
O'GRADY: ...To the status nearly everyone claimed for their country of choice.
ROB: I'm Rob from the Bronx.
O'GRADY: The scrappy underdog.
ROB: Iceland 'cause of their plucky passion and their overachieving enthusiasm.
O'GRADY: We also got some serious soccer savvy.
KELLY: Hi, this is Kelly in Brooklyn.
O'GRADY: Who is rooting for Costa Rica because it has two players from her favorite Major League Soccer team.
KELLY: Rodney Wallace and Ronald Matarrita.
O'GRADY: And then there was Maryanne from New Jersey, who tried to make the whole thing moot.
MARYANNE: Well, it doesn't really matter who you root for because Putin will make sure that his team defeats Germany in the final.
O'GRADY: But in came one last call from Papa Tall.
PAPA TALL: Hi, my name is Papa Tall.
O'GRADY: Papa Tall - his real name - is from...
PAPA TALL: The beautiful country of Senegal.
O'GRADY: And he said listen; we all know that on the global stage Senegal is a pinprick, an afterthought. But on a World Cup soccer field, it has what matters - 11 men who can create a ruthless beauty and win.
PAPA TALL: Military power, economic power and all those powers have nothing to do with sports, where we inherently just perform as human beings, pushing ourselves to do better always and higher. Thank you.
O'GRADY: Papa Tall teaches French at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem. He had me pull up a chair in his classroom to talk about why America should drop everything and adopt his team starting Tuesday, when Senegal plays Poland.
PAPA TALL: Whenever the playing field is leveled, little people like us can have their chances. I think the Americans should root for the underdog so that they can show the world that we are not always about power.
O'GRADY: Papa Tall was joined by his student Yusef Bamba, a soccer fan from Ivory Coast. The two clearly like each other despite their nonstop bickering.
YUSEF BAMBA: They're a good team, OK? But...
PAPA TALL: Give credit, young man.
BAMBA: No. I like Mane.
PAPA TALL: This is what they do. People from Ivory Coast, they can't stand us.
O'GRADY: The nickname of the Senegalese men's soccer team is the Lions of Teranga. In French...
PAPA TALL: Les Lions de la Teranga.
O'GRADY: And you told me earlier that that roughly translates to...
PAPA TALL: Yes.
O'GRADY: ...The apex predators of hospitality.
PAPA TALL: Yes.
O'GRADY: Which is a very evocative contradiction. Can you explain that?
PAPA TALL: Absolutely. When it comes to confronting us, you'd better know where we're coming from. And that's where the teranga ends.
O'GRADY: Papa Tall said his team will play like lions...
PAPA TALL: Until we raise the trophy.
O'GRADY: ...And reminded Bamba of their World Cup bet.
PAPA TALL: What are you going to do if we win?
BAMBA: Strip naked around the school.
PAPA TALL: He's going to strip naked around the school. And I will hold you to your engagement.
O'GRADY: Note to worried people - that's not going to happen. They're kidding, I think. For NPR News in New York, I'm Jim O'Grady.
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