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At World Cup, two unknowns have become surprise stars

If you’ve been watching ESPN’s nightly World Cup wrapup show, you have probably seen them – not beneath the swaying palm trees on the Rio de Janeiro beachfront set with the rest of the on-air talent, but squished together in an 8-by-5-foot room. Two scruffy, balding Britons, clutching a miniature banana as a make-believe microphone, riffing on the day’s games. Maybe you’ve even heard them describe the Brazilian star Neymar as “a Japanese manga character come to life,” or the Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo as “a petulant show pony.”

The World Cup, in Brazil, has introduced millions of Americans to the vagaries of stoppage time, to the Shakira-inspired dance moves of the Colombian national team and to the oral fixations of the Uruguayan Luis Suárez. It also has introduced them to those Britons, Michael Davies and Roger Bennett – ESPN’s “Men in Blazers.”

Until recently, Bennett and Davies were best known – to the extent that they were known at all – for their weekly “Men in Blazers” podcast with a small but devoted following of U.S. soccer geeks, known collectively as “GFOPs” (Great Friends of the Pod). But with soccer now dominating the American sports conversation, they are off the margins and in the mainstream, doing daily online video reports for ESPN and popping up on shows like “Morning Joe,” “Charlie Rose” and “CBS News Sunday Morning.”

Bennett and Davies are less sports analysts than cultural observers, looking for amusing ways to frame the most compelling storylines of the tournament. They have, for instance, taken a special interest in Mexico’s stout coach, Miguel Herrera, who is driven into such a state of hallucinatory ecstasy when his team scores that he’s been known to end up on the ground, locked in an embrace with one of his players.

“There it is, more happiness than any Englishmen has felt in my entire generation,” Bennett said during a recent broadcast.

“Including Benny Hill,” Davies added.

Speaking by phone from Brazil, Bennett said of their World Cup reports: “They are ways of capturing the experience of watching this drama, this elite athletic event fused with soap opera.”

For sports fans of a certain age, the casual repartee between Davies and Bennett is reminiscent of the days when Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann anchored a more free-form version of ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” For nonsports fans, the closest analogue is probably the NPR show “Car Talk.”

Both men are English expats who live in New York, and their home country, eliminated after its first two games, is the butt of a lot of jokes. A lowlight reel of the team’s miscues was accompanied by a brief history of the decline of the British Empire: “Sturridge misses! Cornwallis evacuates Yorktown: 1781. Sturridge misses again! India was given back: 1947.”

Bennett, 43, and Davies, 48, met at the wedding of a mutual friend on the day of the 2006 World Cup final. Both were miserable about being pulled away from the game just as it was ending – “The wedding was on a bloody boat, so we had to be there before it took off,” recalls Bennett – so they commiserated and talked soccer.

They were reintroduced several years later at Davies’ office in SoHo. At the time, Bennett was a freelance writer and editor. Davies was – and still is – a TV executive who had produced shows like “Wife Swap” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

“Dave-o scheduled me for a 15-minute meeting,” Bennett said. The meeting lasted more than two hours.

They soon started the podcast, which is basically an unscripted conversation about soccer (among other things) over pints of Guinness. Their mission statement: “‘Men in Blazers’ is driven by the belief that soccer is America’s sport of the future. As it has been since 1972.”

Bennett, who grew up in Liverpool, first came to America as a camp counselor during the World Cup in 1990. England made it to the semifinals that year. He got the day off to watch, but wound up driving fruitlessly around Maine looking for a bar showing the game. The next morning he read in the Boston Globe that England had lost to West Germany on penalty kicks.

Over the years, the two have invented a “Men in Blazers” vocabulary, which can be a bit confusing for new listeners. A “shass” is a shot that’s so weak it turns into a pass. A “raven” is an email from a fan, a reference to “Game of Thrones.”

Shortly before the World Cup started, a senior ESPN executive asked Bob Ley, one of the network’s veteran broadcasters, what he needed to know about the “Men in Blazers.”

“I said you basically just need to tell them how much time they have and turn them loose,” Ley said from Rio de Janeiro.

Both Bennett and Davies are unabashed fans of their adopted country’s national team. Minutes after America’s heartbreaking tie against Portugal on Sunday, they tweeted: “This may be as close as you will ever come to feeling English, America.”

Bennett has predicted America will win the World Cup. When it was pointed out to him in an email that he’d have plausible deniability in the form of irony if the U.S. team didn’t come home from Brazil with the trophy, he replied, “We are as sincere as Joan of Arc.”