Croatia beat Morocco to finish third at World Cup

Special Morocco lost in the third-place playoff - but their journey at this World Cup will have created memories of a lifetime for those who witnessed it first-hand. (Reuters)
Morocco lost in the third-place playoff - but their journey at this World Cup will have created memories of a lifetime for those who witnessed it first-hand. (Reuters)
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Updated 17 December 2022

Croatia beat Morocco to finish third at World Cup

Croatia beat Morocco to finish third at World Cup
  • Atlas Lions’ achievements in Qatar will be remembered for outpouring of pride among Arab nations

DOHA: It is finally over, and Morocco can go home to a heroes’ welcome.

The third-place playoff at the World Cup can be a downbeat and pointless affair when teams are heartbroken at missing out on a place in the final, but there are times when it is a chance for the fans and the players to celebrate something special, and to say “thank you” to each other.

That was the case for both teams when South Korea lost 3-2 to Turkey in 2002 in Daegu, and that was certainly the case for Morocco on Saturday evening.

Croatia won the game 2-1, scoring two fabulous first half goals and probably just about deserved to take bronze. It would have been pleasant for Morocco to say they had finished third in the World Cup but as time passes, few will remember this game, though will never forget everything that happened before it.

As a spectacle and contest, however, it was an enthralling one. Josko Gvardial’s beautiful diving header after seven minutes was a perfect end to a well-worked free-kick. Less than two minutes later, Achraf Dari equalized, another header from a set piece.

And three minutes before the break, Mislav Orsic’s delightful chip from the left side of the area ended up in the top opposite corner.

Both teams continued to have chances. They met in the opening group game in what now seems like a year ago and played out a cagey 0-0 draw. Few then would have predicted that they would face each other again in this tournament, but a lot has happened since then.

As all know by now, Morocco went on to win their next two games, against Belgium and Canada and to deservedly top Group F.

Then came a penalty shootout win over Spain that sent the country wild with delight, with Achraf Hakimi’s decisive panenka penalty and penguin celebration already iconic World Cup moments. That was followed by an even bigger deal, a 1-0 win over Portugal in last Saturday’s quarterfinal, a victory that was as heroic as it was deserved. The semifinal against France ended in a 2-0 defeat, though the Atlas Lions pushed the defending champions all the way and had chances.

Morocco then were exhausted and racked with injuries but managed to produce a game against Croatia which was a feast of football — another worthy achievement by both teams.

It was also an atmosphere to drink in. The BBC said that while Argentine fans had brought their A game to stadiums during this World Cup,they had just been outdone by the supporters of Morocco who were the best in Qatar.

The game was not only a chance for the players and fans to say farewell, but also one more opportunity for everyone to enjoy the best atmosphere at the tournament.

The supporters did their utmost to roar their heroes on to victory, but there was just not enough in the tank.

The injuries that took centre-backs Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd out of the game with France — and fans will long debate as to what would have happened in that game had they, along with Bayern Munich defender Nasser Mazraoui, been fit to play — were on display here, as both the central defensive understudies were unable to finish the game.

Sofyan Amrabat, who had been the standout defensive midfielder at the whole tournament, had to drop back into the defense in the second-half and was somewhat fortunate to get away with a clear foul in the area on Gvardiol.

Yet Morocco kept going until the end and Youssef En-Nesyri headed just over in the 96th minute when he could have taken the game into extra-time.

In this seventh game in 25 days for both teams, the Reds, with all their injuries and exhaustion, never stopped running and fighting.

The fans wanted nothing less and were rewarded for their support. There was disappointment at the end from the players but when the dust settles, they will look back at a hugely successful tournament.

Hakim Ziyech and Hakimi came into the World Cup as the team’s biggest stars and produced performances worthy of that label.

They were joined by the likes of Amrabat, goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, striker En-Nesryi and midfielder Azz-Eddine Ounahi.

It will not be too long before such names are appearing in the UEFA Champions League and we have not seen the last of them playing at the highest levels of club football.

We have also not seen the last of Morocco. Coach Walid Regragui will be targeting the African Cup of Nations, which they will enter as the team to beat, and then there is qualification for the 2026 World Cup to consider.

Morocco have shown they can compete with the best in Qatar, and have shown the rest of the Arab world — and anyone else watching — what is possible.