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As the World Cup semifinals begin, it's the Fab Four goalkeepers leading the way

Yassine Bounou of Morocco makes a save during the the World Cup quarterfinal between Morocco and Portugal. Goalkeepers have powered the final four teams left in the tournament.
Francois Nel
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Getty Images
Yassine Bounou of Morocco makes a save during the the World Cup quarterfinal between Morocco and Portugal. Goalkeepers have powered the final four teams left in the tournament.

DOHA, Qatar — By many metrics, this World Cup in Qatar has been an all-time great. A global audience again in the billions; roaring crowds in Doha turning stadiums into hazard zones for the ears; matches that astound and confound.

And then there's the metric of Poppy Zizos. She's Briana Scurry's mother-in-law.

"Yes, I married into a family that does not care about soccer at all," Scurry laughingly said, noting the irony that she was the star U.S. national team goalkeeper in 1999, at the most meaningful Women's World Cup in history. "But my mother-in-law and I watched two quarterfinal [matches] the other day, and she absolutely loved it. Which is saying something."

Well Poppy, it's about to get even better.

Doha's final four

The semifinals get underway Tuesday with Argentina taking on Croatia. Wednesday, it's defending champion France against history-making Morocco.

Scurry, who calls this tournament "more like March Madness than any other World Cup I think I've ever seen," notes, like many, Doha's intriguing final four.

"I absolutely love France," Scurry said. "I just love the fact that this team is made up of so many great players that came out of circumstances that were difficult to achieve their dream. I love that about that French team from last time in 2018. It's the same again."

Argentina forward Lionel Messi (R) laughs during a training session at Qatar University in Doha on Dec. 12, 2022, a day before the Argentina's World Cup semifinal match against Croatia.
Juan Mabromata / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Argentina forward Lionel Messi (R) laughs during a training session at Qatar University in Doha on Dec. 12, 2022, a day before the Argentina's World Cup semifinal match against Croatia.

But Scurry, like so many others not from the countries involved, can find a rooting case for each.

"You know my heart is also going with Argentina," she said, "because [superstar forward Lionel] Messi is absolutely outstanding and it would be really nice for him to get a World Cup championship. But, I tell you what, the goalkeeping has been phenomenal for Morocco and the way they play is astonishing."

And then Croatia, the runner up to France at the last World Cup and a team filled with players who've embraced a fighting persona.

But there's not only a rooting case for each semifinalist. There's also a case to be made for all four teams to win two more matches and become World Cup champs.

Tested, fighting, confident ... and Rocky

Let's start with Tuesday's match.

Argentina is tested. There was the must-win game against Mexico in the group stage, that Argentina won. Thrillingly, with their talisman Messi blasting in what turned out to be the winning goal. Since then, life for the Argentines has been on the edge, at times, no more so than against the Netherlands in a physical and foul-filled quarterfinal match, that saw Argentina give up a late 2-0 lead but still prevail in a dramatic penalty kick shootout.

Tested.

Croatia, the aforementioned fighters, took down tournament favorite Brazil in a match where the Croatian players, yes, fought their way through another grueling extra time period and shootout. Five of Croatia's last six World Cup knockout-stage matches have gone into extra time.

They control the midfield, play hard-nosed defense, and dare you to outlast them.

France increasingly looks like a team comfortable with winning. Yes, they have the sublime Kylian Mbappé storming down the field's left side, displaying his goal-scoring prowess five times in the tournament – he leads the individual scoring race. But even when Mbappé is largely contained, as he was in the quarterfinal match against England, France still wins.

"We are mentally strong," French coach Didier Deschamps said after the England victory. "And the more you win games, the stronger you get. I think in [this] match, that was pivotal."

And saving what some say, ok everyone in the Arab world says, is the best for last — Morocco.

A popular narrative is they have surged to the first-ever semifinal berth for an African and majority Arab nation, through heart and determination and divine inspiration.

"When you watch 'Rocky'," Moroccan coach Walid Regragui said after his team beat Portugal 1-0 in the quarterfinals, "you want to support Rocky Balboa because of his heart and commitment, and I think we are the Rocky of this World Cup."

But Regragui added, "[it's] not a miracle. [it's] hard work."

And, to put it mildly, defense.

Morocco has faced some of Europe's most prominent national teams — Belgium, Spain, Portugal, fellow semifinalist Croatia. And it's given up a grand total of zero goals. The only team to score against Morocco was Canada. But it really wasn't. It was an own-goal by the Moroccans.

"I can't think of any other country that's only given up one own-goal up until this point," Scurry said. "It's really hard to do. They defend like their life depends on it. and they [counter] attack like their life depends on it. It's lightning."

Which would then make Yassine Bounou, thunder.

Fab four keepers

Bounou, known as "Bono," leads a quartet of semifinal goalkeepers who have elevated shot-stopping to, if not an art, a central focus of this World Cup.

Whether it was Bono saving penalty kicks against Spain, Croatian goalkeeper Dominik Livaković tying history against Japan, Argentine Emiliano Martinez foiling the Netherlands, or France's Hugo Lloris empathizing with, but beating, Harry Kane and England, this Fab Four of keepers has generated as much buzz in their little confined spaces, as all those other guys running around the pitch.

Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livaković snuffs out Brazil forward Neymar during the World Cup quarterfinal match on Dec. 9, 2022.
Nelson Almeida / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livaković snuffs out Brazil forward Neymar during the World Cup quarterfinal match on Dec. 9, 2022.

Scurry is loving the attention paid to her fellow goalkeepers, whose importance has grown, she says, since the quarterfinals.

"I've always said this, from quarterfinal to final, at some point in time," Scurry said, "that goalkeeper of a team that wins, or gets to the final, has to come up huge. And the truth is, all four of them have already done it."

Scurry says by the quarters in a World Cup, everybody's tired. Some teams have injured players or other reasons why they're not at full strength.

And you're going to have to turn to that person positioned directly in front of the goal.

"At some point, a team might come out flat and the goalkeeper is going to have to stand up and do their job," she said, "this happens all the time. I mean, it happened to me in 1999, in the [Women's World Cup] semifinal against Brazil. Like I had six or seven great saves I had to make, and I had more saves in that one game than the entire tournament."

"And it's because we came out flat against Brazil. In the [preceding] game against Germany, we had to come from behind twice and you exhaust your emotions. And there's always that [let down] unfortunately, it's almost like anti-climactic after you win a big game, then a lot of times a team is flat in the next game."

And that's why Scurry's thinking everyone's favorite Rocky Balboa, Morocco, may be in for trouble against seasoned and confident France.

"[Morocco] had such an amazing game in the quarterfinals to get this far," she said, "and now I feel if there's a letdown [by] them, I wouldn't be surprised. Because it's hard to amp it up consecutively like that. So the goalkeeper's going to be really vital and called upon for this."

But that's as far as Scurry wants to go with prognosticating.

"I almost don't want to make a prediction," she said. "I just want to watch and see how things unfold."

Millions upon millions are with her on that.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.