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Winner of the France-Morocco semifinal game will face Argentina in the finals

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Now, the question today at the World Cup in Qatar - can the fever pitch of excitement get any higher? The answer? Si. That's because France plays Morocco in a hugely anticipated semifinal match. All right, here's a mini tale of the tape. France, defending champ with a top scorer so far in Kylian Mbappe. Morocco is a self-described Rocky Balboa of the tournament, the first-ever African and majority-Arab nation to get this far. So, yo, Adrian, indeed. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is in Doha. All right, Tom, so set the scene for us. How did these two teams get there?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Thanks for going there with the yo, Adrian, A.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: As I am sure you know by now, Morocco is everyone's tournament's surprise, winning its group and then taking down European powers Spain and Portugal in the knockout stage matches. But maybe not so surprising. You know, you heard soccer experts early on saying, watch out, this team's for real, especially the defense. And sure enough, Morocco hasn't given up a goal to an opponent the entire World Cup. The only score against them, an own goal against Canada. Morocco is also running on tons of emotion, fueled by crowds at their matches. The roaring, the whistling is deafening. They have become such a source of pride throughout the Arab world. From common people to rulers, the Atlas Lions are it.

MARTÍNEZ: What about France?

GOLDMAN: An interesting contrast. France has this feel of an NFL player who scores a touchdown and hands the ball to the ref instead of spiking it, you know? Been there, done that.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter) Jerry Rice. Yeah. Yeah.

GOLDMAN: And the French have won it all. You know, they won it all in 2018. They've gone through this tournament with confidence. The confidence has grown with each match. And, you know, sure, they've provided excitement, too, and their on-field celebrations are solid. But you really get a sense of quiet and calm self-belief with these guys.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So, Tom, you're there. Care to make a prediction?

GOLDMAN: Not at all.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: But I have got Briana Scurry for you, A. She is the former U.S. goalkeeper who starred in the memorable 1999 Women's World Cup. I talked to her about this match. She's very impressed by Morocco's style of play, the way she says they hang back, they take the opponent's best shots and then explode in a counterattack. But she thinks a savvy French team can deal with that strategy and be the team that breaks through against Morocco in a big way. Here she is.

BRIANA SCURRY: The funny thing is about Morocco, they've only given up one own goal, but I could totally see them giving up three goals in the next game. Like, they absorbed so much pressure, so much pressure. And I don't want them to be on borrowed time, but I feel like they might be.

GOLDMAN: Oh, that's so sad. But, of course, like any good World Cup prognosticator, Scurry also says it could end up being 0-0 and go into penalty kicks, where either team can win. So she's covered herself.

MARTÍNEZ: And whichever team wins, they've got a date with Argentina in Sunday's final. And, I mean, it kind of feels like this is Lionel Messi's big chance to finally kind of catch Diego Maradona and not kind of be behind him in terms of legacy.

GOLDMAN: It does. It does. You know, and he said yesterday after this big win over Croatia that the win - the loss, excuse me, against Saudi Arabia to start this World Cup that we were all hyperventilating about, it lit a fire. And he says every match after that was a must win. And so Argentina has done that and gotten better and better. One prediction I will make, A - whoever plays Argentina Sunday, I'm going to predict a thrilling match.

MARTÍNEZ: I'll predict it for you. It'll be Mbappe and Messi going head-to-head for the cup. That's what I think, but that's just me. NPR's Tom Goldman in Doha.

GOLDMAN: I like that.

MARTÍNEZ: Tom, thanks a lot.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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.