World Cup: England, Croatia Enter Semifinals

Jul 7, 2018
Originally published on July 7, 2018 7:06 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And then there were four. Of course, I'm talking about the World Cup, where it's been another thrilling day. The quarterfinals wrapped up today, and England is celebrating its first trip to the semifinals since 1990. They beat Sweden 2-0 - or nil as they say. And World Cup host Russia finally bowed out, losing in penalties to Croatia.

We're joined now by Roger Bennett. He's one of the "Men In Blazers," host of the WNYC Studios podcast "American Fiasco" and co-author of "Encyclopedia Blazertannica." He's with us now via Skype to give us the latest on World Cup.

Roger...

ROGER BENNETT, BYLINE: Oh, Michel...

MARTIN: ...England.

BENNETT: ...(Unintelligible) alive. (Laughter)

MARTIN: (Laughter) First semifinal since 1990. Are you starting to believe in the impossible?

BENNETT: The impossible has already happened, which is England are enjoying their football - joyous, young, optimistic. And I never thought I would live to see this day in my lifetime that England would be - on the men's side anyway - back in a World Cup semifinal.

It's been 50 years of hurt since we last won the World Cup, a 1966 date that seems as distant to most as when William the Conqueror invaded Britain in 1066. And watching our young boys professionally, clinically, happily defeat Sweden today - honestly, it's - I feel like I'm in a waking dream.

MARTIN: Well, Roger, I'm sure this was a concern of yours as well. Before today's England-Sweden match, there was actually concern that the match might conflict with weddings across the country. Reverend Sandra Millar, the head of life events for the Church of England, suggested to us that guests turn off their cellphones during the ceremonies and that she's not sure that guests were willing to comply.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDRA MILLAR: I've certainly heard of a couple of weddings where the guest numbers were down, where people have sort of last-minute reasons not to come, which does make you wonder. And I think that's a bit sad really.

MARTIN: That was really kind of - we just had to play that because it was - you know? - just a thing.

BENNETT: Michel, even if it was a royal wedding, no one would go to this bloody thing. England, a World Cup semifinal - this is our nations version of putting a man on the moon. This really is.

MARTIN: But why? Tell me why?

BENNETT: You have to understand for as long as I've been alive, England are like Charlie Brown running at a football with Lucy holding. We whip ourselves into a frenzy before the tournament. But this year, we're going to win only to self-sabotage, self-hurt, self-harm, humiliate ourselves, crash out with our heroes proven to be gods with clay feet.

And that's become the new reality - self-loathing - that reinforcement that we used to have an empire - emphasis on used to. And to see this young team with no real kind of boorishness or arrogance to go to the World Cup humbly, wonderfully and just try collectively, tenaciously with great perseverance avoid humiliation, avoid underperforming.

There's so many life lessons in it. And today, really, we saw - Churchill once said success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. And that's what I saw today. I saw an England team, where, for decades, we've been like Sisyphus rolling a rock up the hill, a rock that was constructed largely of our own self-inflicted, overinflated expectations.

Today, this is a team with modest goals. They're human. They understand their own weaknesses. And there's a life lesson in it. When you don't put pressure on yourself, but you just go to enjoy life, to enjoy the experience, great things happen. And that's a life truism that's played out on the football field.

MARTIN: All right. So let's talk about the other side of the bracket, Belgium and France in the other semifinal. They are neighbors, of course. Thoughts about that one?

BENNETT: Yeah, that's two heavyweight squads clashing. England, by the way, have sneaked into the World Cup semifinal without - really the luck of the draw. They've not had to play a truly massive team. But in the other side of the bracket, all the heavyweights just colliding. And Belgium, who just defeated Brazil in a wonderful spectacle, will play France in a battle between the Flemish and the Walloon, really a relitigation of the Franco-Flemish War of 1297.

It's a game that could and should arguably be the final. That's on Tuesday. And then on Wednesday - I mean, as if England's day couldn't have got any better. Russia played Croatia to see who would play England in the other semifinal. And that game went into extra time. The two teams really battered each other - exhausted - ran, ran, ran and had to play a penalty shootout, which I think if Americans just watched penalty kicks, the sport would be bigger than the NFL.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK, we have to leave it there for now. We only have 15 seconds left. Who do we like to win? I hate - you know I have to ask. Who do you like to win? Very fast.

BENNETT: (Unintelligible) going to be England. Courage.

MARTIN: All right. That's Roger Bennett, one of the "Men In Blazers," host of the podcast "American Fiasco."

Roger, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.