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The World Cup Quarterfinals begin today

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, the 32 teams at the World Cup in Qatar are now down to eight.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah, the quarterfinals begin today, and all eight teams playing can make a case that they are the ones who have a shot to win.

INSKEEP: Quarter for your thoughts? NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman is following an evenly balanced tournament. Hey there, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who are the contenders?

GOLDMAN: Well, let's run them down, Steve. Croatia finished second at the 2018 World Cup - still very good - playing Brazil, winner of five World Cups, ranked No. 1 in the world. And they are Brazil. Then the Netherlands, three-time World Cup runner-up, against Argentina, also a three-time runner-up and two-time champion. But they've never won with Lionel Messi. You might have heard of him, Steve - little guy, scores a lot of goals, one of the all-time greats. This is his last dance at the World Cup - last chance to win it as well. Then tomorrow, Portugal with its all-time great, Cristiano Ronaldo, yanked from the starting lineup and his team looked better for it in a free-flowing 6-1 beatdown of Switzerland. Portugal plays Morocco.

Now, that's the surprise of the bunch, but kind of not - very good team on a roll. They haven't been beaten here. They're very strong defensively. The only score against them has been an own goal, and they have a huge fan base. The Arab world has gone gaga for the Atlas Lions. And then finally, France, the defending champion, possessor of the fantastic player Kylian Mbappe, against England, which is loaded with talent and has the co-lead for most goals scored in the tournament. So there it is, your great eight.

INSKEEP: Wow. A whole lot...

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...Of possibilities there. Let me ask about one of the possibilities. A couple of the great players that you mentioned, Messi and Ronaldo - is it possible that they could have a head-to-head matchup at some point?

GOLDMAN: There's been hope that that will happen. Technically, it is possible. They're on opposite sides of the draw. So they could play for a title. They could play for third place. Either way, any head-to-head matchup would be diminished since Ronaldo may be banished from the starting lineup for good after Portugal was so dominant without him. Messi, on the other hand, has been very important to Argentina. He's scored three goals. His first one really saved the team in a must-win group stage match against Mexico. Even if they don't meet head-to-head, this is the end, at the World Cup, at least, of an amazing time. You know, most of the last two decades, Messi and Ronaldo set the standard and were the two most famous players of a generation.

INSKEEP: Is a new generation rising?

GOLDMAN: Well, it is. So, you know, interestingly, you're going to see some of that in the France versus England quarterfinal on Saturday. Kylian Mbappe, as I mentioned, was a teenage breakout star in France's World Cup title run in 2018. He's picked up here in Qatar as a 23-year-old. Currently, he has the scoring lead with five goals. He's blazing fast, deadly accurate as a scorer - throw in a magnetic personality, he is quickly climbing to the top. And then, meantime, England's Jude Bellingham - he's 19. He's a teenage breakout star in this tournament. He's a dazzling midfielder with the ball at his feet. He really does it all. And people are marveling at his skill at such a young age.

INSKEEP: With all of this possibility, isn't Brazil still the favorite?

GOLDMAN: Brazil is, you know. They are the favorites. They're playing so well. They're dancing after goals. That's a worrisome and somewhat annoying sight for opponents.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: Whoever Brazil plays going forward, starting with Croatia today, it's going to be tough. But yeah, they're expected to emerge, dancing or not, with a sixth title.

INSKEEP: Don't you normally dance at the end of your interviews on NPR, Tom? You do a little...

GOLDMAN: I'm dancing right now.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's great. That's great.

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm glad you're able to keep the microphone in the proper range. NPR's Tom Goldman at the World Cup in Qatar. Thanks.

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

Tom Goldman
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.