AILSA CHANG, HOST:
It was yet another dramatic finish in the World Cup. England and Croatia battled into extra time, and it took a goal in the 109th minute to break a 1-1 tie and send the Croatians into the final. Now France awaits. The French team earned its spot in the final yesterday with a 1-0 win over Belgium.
So to help us digest all of this, we have asked back Roger Bennett of the Men in Blazers podcast. Hello.
ROGER BENNETT: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: I'm sorry to make you relive the horror, but what happened out there today?
BENNETT: We had a moment. We had a moment where this England team that have for decades, for most of my life self-sabotaged, just combusted - this young England team, average age bar mitzvah, took the lead. They dared to take the lead with a goal that was like an exorcism. For a moment, it felt like our nation had been ridded of fear and loathing. There was light where there was only darkness. They then had chance after chance to kill the game, which they didn't take. And Croatia are unlike any team England have played in this tournament so far in that they were actually quite good. They came back. And ultimately, if you watch the "Game Of Thrones"...
BENNETT: ...Any of your listeners who've seen the fight between the Mountain and the Viper...
CHANG: Oh, yeah.
BENNETT: ...They forced their way back into the game. And that was it. I've got a renewed appreciation for anyone who tattoos the word breathe on their wrist.
BENNETT: I never understood the wisdom until I watched this game of football, Ailsa.
CHANG: Well, I hope you find some place in your soul to recognize this is the first time Croatia has made it to the World Cup final. And, I mean, come on; there is something special about seeing a team getting this far for the first time, don't you think?
BENNETT: It's a wonderful story - 4.1 million population, this country, which is half the size of London. I think it's about as big as Oregon. It would make it the 27th state - biggest state in America. And they knew ultimately - the longer this game went on, they knew that the mental pressure on the shoulders of these young English men who were familiar only with decades of an England that loses could not summon the belief, the optimism, the creativity to think differently and imagine an England that wins. And I'm - you know, credit to Croatia. They will play France, who are a fantastic footballing team.
BENNETT: But watching this semi-final, watching these young, hopeful, optimistic, naive English players go down, you've got to ask yourself, what else is like sports, Ailsa, where it hurts to watch? It's sickening, excruciating, but you cannot - you will not take your eyes off it.
CHANG: Well, I'm so sorry. But, I mean, Croatia-France - it doesn't have the same cachet as France-England. But do you think we are really down to the best two teams in this entire tournament?
BENNETT: Yeah, France and England - we would have been able to relitigate the Battle of Hastings.
BENNETT: We would have been able to replay Agincourt over and over again. Many would say - cynics would say the World Cup is now over, and bring on the 2019 Women's World Cup and the U.S. women, the defending champions. I can say that I'm ready for that. But, yeah, ultimately Croatia, with the exquisite pairing in the midfield of Modric and Rakitic, these two little kind of point guards who run that team, against the mighty rippled muscle of France - it is the final that rogue state Russia 2018 truly deserves.
CHANG: So this World Cup has been filled with surprises. Do you think it's told us something about how the game of soccer is changing? Any big takeaways?
BENNETT: Yeah. It is - this has been a tournament of optimism, of ambitious, aggressive, positive football really personified by this young England who was shattering to watch in defeat. But they've still had the greatest month. They've created memories that will never be forgotten of joy, of wonder and a fleeting, Ailsa, fleeting, ultimately illusory sense that everything's possible.
CHANG: Fleeting. Roger Bennett is co-host of the Men in Blazers podcast and co-author of the book "Encyclopedia Blazertannica." He joined us by Skype. Thank you.
BENNETT: Courage, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.