WYSO

Saturday Sports: World Cup

Jul 7, 2018
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And it's time now for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: Just so you know, we will not be talking about LeBron James this morning. Let's talk World Cup soccer instead. France and Belgium have made it to the semifinals, and today, England joined them by defeating Sweden 2-0. We'll find out later today who the fourth team to the semifinals will be, and here to walk us through it all is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Hi, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So England vs. Sweden. What happened?

GOLDMAN: Well, England dominated the match on offense and defense. The final score was 2-0, with the English goals coming off a couple of great headers - one of them on a corner kick and one at the end of a beautiful pass over the top. And so England answered the trash talk by former Swedish national team player Hakan Mild, who said this week that English players are spoiled children, and they'll get an unpleasant surprise when the teams play. But it was the Swedes who got the unpleasant surprise. England is in the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1990.

WERTHEIMER: Amazing - and as you mentioned, it has been a very long time since England got this far in the World Cup. I gather the country has a somewhat tortured history in this tournament.

GOLDMAN: I watched today's match with an English person, Linda - my wife. And with England ahead late in the match - up by two goals and controlling the action - I happened to mention that England had it in the bag, and I was shushed and glared at. And that kind of fear is based on a lifetime of World Cup pain. England won the World Cup in 1966, and the expectation was that that would be the first of many. After all, you know, soccer is such an important part of being English. England claims to have invented the sport. But since '66, it's been a lot of early exits from the tournament, painful losses. Now, however, you've got this team. And for many, it represents a new England - a fresh batch of likeable players who, match-by-match, are thumbing their noses at that tortured history.

WERTHEIMER: And later today, in their quarterfinal matchup, Croatia plays Russia, which no one would have believed a month ago. How'd it happen?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, it's one of the true surprises in a tournament filled with surprises. Coming into this tournament, Russia was ranked 70th in the world. That's the lowest ranking of any of the 32 teams. And in the run up to the tournament, Russia hadn't won a match in eight months. But the Russians took advantage of being placed in a weak group for the round-robin group stage that started the tournament. They scored a bunch of goals in their first two matches. That gave them momentum. It got the host country fully behind them, and then they pulled off this stunning win in their last match over Spain in a penalty shootout. And here they are with a chance to go to the semis.

WERTHEIMER: So is there any reason that we should be at all suspicious of the coming from 70th up to the semis - and they're Russians, and they're playing in Russia?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Yeah, connect the dots, right? You know, the suspicions come up because of doping. And frankly, it's Russia's own doing. There was the massive state-sponsored doping system revealed after Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics - a system Russia still refuses to acknowledge even though there's a ton of evidence. One of the reports that followed the 2014 scandal detailed positive drug tests by Russian soccer players that were covered up. There have been no reports of positive tests by the current national team players, no evidence of wrongdoing. But those suspicions remain as Russia continues to overachieve in this World Cup.

WERTHEIMER: Give us a very tiny, tiny brief on what happened to the women's side at Wimbledon.

GOLDMAN: Holy smokes, the No. 1 women's seed lost today, and after that upset of Simona Halep, nine of the top 10 seeds are out, and we're not even at the halfway mark. One seed who's still alive is No. 25 seed Serena Williams. Maybe all those top seeds being out gives her a cleaner path to maybe winning this tournament again.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Tom Goldman, thank you very much.

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