KHOR, Qatar — One last boom of a cheer rained down upon a team around midnight in Al Bayt Stadium, that team cheered back toward its grateful fans, and it became another novel detail of this novel World Cup that it feted the team that had not won.
“We’re on our last legs,” said Manager Walid Regragui, the charismatic 47-year-old who had moved from Wydad AC in Casablanca to the Moroccan national team only three months and two weeks prior.
If his head was still spinning by the time of his news conference after Wednesday’s 2-0 semifinal loss to France, that would be natural. His team had redefined Moroccan soccer, African soccer and Arab soccer, becoming the first World Cup semifinalist from any of those categories. His team had given this first World Cup in the Arab world its texture and tenor.
Unlike so many managers here, he reckons he will stay on. After all, Thursday brings only Day 107.
“They’ve given a very good image for the team all over the world,” he said of his players. “They’ve showcased their quality.” They’ve shown, as goalkeeper Yassine Bounou said after they spent a 1-0 quarterfinal making Portugal their last high-profile victim, that “with this feeling of inferiority [against European teams especially], we have to get rid of it,” they had certainly gotten rid of a chunk of it.
“I told the players that I was proud of them,” Regragui said. “[King Mohammed VI] is also proud of them. And the Moroccan people are proud. And I think the world as a whole is proud,” an echo of his earlier statements about the world’s fondness for underdogs.
“Of course,” he said, “we’ve gone beyond Brazil, Spain, Germany — these top footballing sides. And that’s great for us, but in Africa we need to show that regularly.”
For now, they had beaten Belgium, Spain and Portugal — as well as drawing with Croatia and beating Canada — and they gave France a tussle, with enough chances that the first question to Regragui, from a Moroccan reporter, referred to “the champion of the world [France] crumbling in front of the Moroccan squad.”
They had ventured further than anyone imagined, so Regragui would end up saying, “This was perhaps one step too far — not in quality or in our tactics but physically.” He had “too many players at 60 or 70 percent.” France had similar problems of illness and injury but also the depth to handle them.
Now the minds of Regragui and his hard-tested players can veer toward something else valuable: the Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast. Now they will navigate with something else they will need to manage: expectations. Then maybe in the future, Regragui said, “people will just see it as normal that Morocco is at this stage in the World Cup.”
World Cup in Qatar
World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.
Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.
Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.