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Argentina beats Croatia in the first semi-final of the World Cup

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The dream of Argentina and Lionel Messi are alive at the World Cup. The South American soccer powerhouse defeated Croatia 3-0 to advance to Sunday's final. Messi shined with a goal and an assist. And now Argentina's star forward has a chance at his first ever World Cup title. NPR's Tom Goldman watched the game in Doha, Qatar, and is on the line with us. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: There was talk that this would be a close match between Croatia and Argentina. What happened?

GOLDMAN: Well, you know, actually, it was close for the first 30 minutes in that neither team was doing much of anything. Both were playing cautiously and kind of sizing each other up. But then in the 32nd minute, Argentina struck and really never let up after that. Twenty-two-year-old forward Julian Alvarez started things off. He made a run toward the Croatian goal. The Croatian goalkeeper rammed into him. That led to an Argentina penalty kick, which Lionel Messi took and made.

And that was a significant score not just for his team, but it tied Messi for the overall goal-scoring lead in the tournament with five. And then minutes later, Alvarez scored himself. In the second half, he scored a second goal on a beautiful assist from Messi. They were the guys today, and that was really it. Croatia, which calls itself a bunch of fighters, never really fought back, and, Ari, that's surprising. Argentina is very good, but Croatia was really tough and fought hard getting to the semifinal. I mean, they upset Brazil, but they just didn't show up for this one.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about Messi's game. He scored, but it sounds like that wasn't the most impressive thing.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, well, that second-half play that I mentioned with Alvarez - I think it has to be - and I won't even stick arguably in there. It has to be his moment of this World Cup. He got the ball at midfield. He sprinted down the right side. He had a much bigger guy on him. Everyone's bigger than Messi. He's pint-sized. And the guy was jostling him. But Messi kept his balance. He juked this way and that. He cut toward the Croatian goal and flicked this perfect little pass to Alvarez, who was in front of the goal, and he kicked it in. It showed so much skill by Messi. He's really having a phenomenal tournament, and it certainly would fit if he and Argentina won it all on Sunday.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk about Sunday. Who's Argentina going to play in the finals?

GOLDMAN: Well, that will be decided tomorrow in a highly anticipated match between defending champion France and upstart Morocco, whose coach calls them the Rocky Balboa of this tournament. It's the first African Arab majority nation to play in a World Cup semifinal. They are surging right now. They have the entire Arab world behind them. But they're playing a seasoned French team with huge talent, and they know how to win. And that counts for a lot.

SHAPIRO: Let's just take a step back for a moment because this match was played at the same stadium where the American soccer journalist Grant Wahl very suddenly and shockingly died on Saturday covering the quarterfinals. You were at that match. What was it like being back there tonight?

GOLDMAN: It was hard. This is the first time some of the U.S. journalists were seeing each other since Saturday, when Grant Wahl died. And some of those closest to him have been holed up, not working much, if at all. So tonight there were hugs. One reporter I ran into as I was heading into the stadium - we were both there on Saturday, and he asked if I'd go in with him. And I think we were both relieved to have someone to kind of lean on, to talk to. You know, everyone got a little therapy tonight. And inside the media center, there was a small shrine, flowers and books to sign and leave messages and not just for Grant Wahl. Sadly, he's one of three journalists who've died during this World Cup. I got to tell you, Ari, I've been doing this a long time and have been to a lot of these big events, but that is a first.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tom Goldman in Doha, Qatar. Thank you.

GOLDMAN: You bet. 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.