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Fans Wait To See Which Team Plays France In World Cup Championship

Jul 11, 2018
Originally published on July 11, 2018 5:16 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

France is going to the World Cup championship match this weekend. France beat Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday. And this will be France's third time in the finals since 1998. The other contender will be decided today when England plays a surprisingly strong Croatia. Reporter Grant Wahl is in Russia covering the World Cup for Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports. He joins us now. Hi, Grant.

GRANT WAHL: Hi. How are you?

KING: I'm good. All right. We'll look ahead in a moment, but first let's talk about yesterday's game. You wrote that in the match between France and Belgium there were three main takeaways. Very briefly, what were those?

WAHL: Well, I think one of them is that France played a very strong defensive game. And they have a player, N'Golo Kante, who's a terrific defensive midfielder. He's won two Premier League titles. And he may put France in a position to win this World Cup. And I don't think he's going to be named the player of the tournament, but I think he might be my player of the tournament just because he's been so impactful for this team.

The other, another, is Didier Deschamps, the coach of France who won the World Cup as the captain in 1998, gets criticized sometimes for being too conservative. And yet, even though they have so much talent and even though they may not show it all the time, they are so effective, as they were against Belgium in limiting a really terrific offensive attack that Belgium had and keeping them from scoring. It was just an amazing accomplishment. And I think France deserved to win. I think Deschamps deserves credit. And then I think, also, you look at France and Kylian Mbappe, the 19-year-old who's the second-youngest player in this World Cup. He didn't score a goal last night, but he was really impressive. Again, on occasion, setting up chances. And I think if he were to score a goal in the final this weekend and they were to win that he probably would be the biggest takeaway star for France from this term.

KING: Yeah. He sure seems like one of the biggest stars from the entire tournament. But you say you think France's N'Golo Kante is the best player, he just won't get the recognition for it. Why not?

WAHL: Well, I think he plays a position that doesn't get as much acclaim. You know, he doesn't score a lot of goals at all. He isn't an attacking creator. And usually attacking players are the ones who win the Best Player of the Tournament award. But he covers so much space on the field, and he does it not just to cover the space, but he also intercepts balls all the time. He prevents attacks, and he gets the French attack going in the other direction. And I don't think it's a coincidence that Kante has won Premier League titles with Leicester City and Chelsea and has put France in this position.

KING: All right. England plays Croatia today, and England is the favorite. But are they a lock?

WAHL: Not at all. I think this is a pretty even match up, actually, against Croatia. I don't think either one of these teams, if they win, would be the favorite. Against France, they're coming out of sort of the weaker side of the bracket here. Nobody expected England and Croatia to be in the semifinals before the tournament. But, you know, England has been so good on set pieces, scoring from corner kicks and free kicks. It's almost a little bit like American football the way they designed some of these plays, but they've been very effective. And Croatia has maybe the best midfield in the tournament. Luka Modric has been really, really good for them, and Ivan Rakitic. This is a really talented generation of Croatian players.

KING: Grant Wahl is a reporter for Sports Illustrated and the author of the new book, "Masters Of Modern Soccer." Thanks so much, Grant.

WAHL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.