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World Cup semifinals this week will feature two thrilling matchups

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The lineups for the World Cup semifinals are set. The four remaining teams are France, Argentina, Croatia and history-making Morocco, the first African and majority-Arab nation to make it this far. Those teams qualified during a riveting weekend of soccer in Qatar. NPR's Tom Goldman is in Doha and joins us now to talk about it. Welcome to the show.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

RASCOE: So for those who missed those really spectacular quarterfinal matches yesterday and the day before, can you give us a recap?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, they were spectacular. In this first Middle Eastern World Cup, Morocco has become this incredible source of pride all over the Arab world. After Morocco beat Portugal yesterday to move into the semis, I talked to Tariq Saad (ph), originally from Sudan. He was so excited. He noted correctly that many African players play for top European teams now, so the individual talent is there. And he said the breakthrough by Morocco shows African Arab nations could compete more with big soccer powers if they invested as much. Here is.

TARIQ SAAD: Now football become like an industry. I mean, if we spend the same money that Portugal has all spent, then we would be the - I mean, we'd be even better than Argentina or Brazil.

GOLDMAN: Now, Morocco - it's not just an inspiring Cinderella story. It's a good team with a tough, tough defense that hasn't given up a goal the entire tournament. The only score against Morocco was an own goal in a game against Canada.

RASCOE: On to the rest, starting with Brazil. Weren't they supposed to win this thing?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) They were. They were the favorites. They got caught up in Croatia's grinding defensive web. Brazil took 19 shots on goal. Only one made it through. But they couldn't hold the lead. They gave up the equalizer with just 3 minutes left in extra time, and they went to penalty kicks. And Croatia dominated. Croatia, remember, finished second in the last World Cup. And it's showing that wasn't a fluke.

RASCOE: Argentina and France round out this foursome. What stood out in their matches?

GOLDMAN: Well, Argentina won a physical and really angry match against Netherlands. It was a brawl the referee tried to contain but often didn't - 48 fouls, 16 yellow cards. Even superstar Lionel Messi, normally in control on the field - he got caught up in the emotion and lashed out at some on the Dutch team. But Argentina won the fight, and Messi now is two wins away from the World Cup title he's never won. And then France, the defending champs, found a way against England. Sadly, England again found a way to lose at a World Cup, this time when top scorer and team captain Harry Kane missed a penalty kick that would've tied the match late. England's a true soccer country, but it remains stuck on 1966, the only year it won the World Cup.

RASCOE: Obviously, there's been a lot of excitement of the event, but that took a blow early Saturday in Doha when distinguished American soccer journalist Grant Wahl died suddenly at a match that you were at. What's that done to the mood?

GOLDMAN: Well, among journalists, especially us in the U.S., it's been awful. Watching these amazing matches this weekend, there were moments where you'd just shake your head. I didn't know Grant well. Like a lot of people, I knew him mostly through his writing. And in that writing, you could feel how he cared for people. You could feel his passion for soccer and his knowledge about it, something he conveyed so well to both soccer lovers and general sports fans. And that really helped grow the sport's popularity in the U.S.

RASCOE: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thank you so much for talking to us from Doha.

GOLDMAN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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