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Europe Monopolizes World Cup Semifinals


On this American holiday, we have a report on the most international of sports competitions. The first semi-final match on soccer's World Cup will be played today in Germany. The host country takes on Italy. On Wednesday, France and Portugal meet, rounding out an all European final four.

To talk about the action is soccer analyst Seamus Malin. Good to have you with us.

Mr. SEAMUS MALIN (Soccer Analyst): Thank you. Good to be with you, Lynn.

NEARY: So I guess at the beginning of this World Cup, no one would have imagined a semi-final without Brazil. What happened?

Mr. MALIN: Brazil, I think got victimized by putting on the field a team of 11 superstars. Everybody looked at the 11 names on the sheets and said, my goodness, what talent in every position. But there came the weakness. It was not really a team. They never played a comprehensive style that worked. They simply could not gel at the time when they needed it most. But France was prepared for them and comprehensively outplayed them and deserved to win.

NEARY: How unusual is it for the semi-final lineup to be all European?

Mr. MALIN: It's really not that all unusual when the matches are played in Europe. In fact, it's been a perennial problem for teams from outside Europe to make the final four. It just doesn't happen very much. The last time in fact a Latin American team won the World Cup in Europe was in Sweden, 1958, when of course Brazil beat Sweden, the host country.

NAERY: Any explanation for that?

Mr. MALIN: Well, certainly, the host teams in Europe have their definite home field advantage. On the other hand, Brazil and Argentina have many, many players who play with club teams in Europe. So this time around, it was a bit more of a surprise because unfamiliarity with the geography should not have been an obstacle.

NEARY: Well, let's talk about the match between Germany and Italy. What will you be looking for in this match?

Mr. MALIN: The Italians have quietly managed to get themselves into the semifinal and sort of moving along quietly not really overwhelming anybody, and then you look around and you said, oh, my goodness, it's Italy again. And they have given up only one goal and that was scored inadvertently by one of their own players.

Germany, on the other hand, has been on an absolute incredible ride. Everybody wrote them off before the championship. Now, all of a sudden, they have come on like gangbusters and had a wonderful result against Argentina, convinced everybody that they were ready for it. And Italy is the team to beat here, unless it goes to a penalty shoot-out, in which case you can turn off the TV and count on Germany winning it.

NEARY: And when France and Portugal take the field, what do you expect to see there?

Mr. MALIN: That's a wonderfully intriguing match-up. Portugal, nobody expected them to be quite this far. They did a very good job in their group. And then they knocked off England in a grueling match. They take on a French side that had a dreadful beginning but may have found the formula that has always seems to work in World Cups, that is to begin indifferently, maybe even poorly, and then gradually build confidence, and then suddenly, just at the right time, gel.

They gelled wonderfully against Spain and was a pre-season favorite, and of course they knocked out Brazil. So I think they are now our favorites to beat Portugal, who had two very grueling physical matches to play in the last two rounds.

NEARY: And in the end, do you care to speculate on who is going to walk away with the trophy?

Mr. MALIN: Well, France and Italy are the two I'm picking, but these are four teams very, very evenly matched. But if it does get to Italy/France, you always put your money on Italy from these big matches. But France to me has managed to capture the formula. In Zinedine Zidane, just about to retire, they have found a man who has suddenly re-found his youth and is playing better than he has ever played before, and he could be the single individual who could bring the championship back to France.

NEARY: Well, thanks for talking with us, Seamus.

Mr. MALIN: You're welcome.

NEARY: Soccer analyst Seamus Malin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.