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Morocco ends its World Cup with a loss, but speaks of the dreams it inspired

Croatia beat Morocco on Saturday to take third place at the World Cup. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
5 min

RAYYAN, Qatar — Croatia departed the World Cup on Saturday with another medal, an extraordinary feat for a young country with a population smaller than some cities. Morocco left the World Cup with prizes that outweigh the outcome, a shining light for the Arab world and African soccer.

The third-place match may feel like an unnecessary exercise on the eve of the sport’s final, but for the teams involved at Khalid International Stadium and the people they represent, Croatia’s 2-1 victory carried meaning and substance.

The Croatians claimed a top-three finish for the second consecutive World Cup and third time since 1998.

“We’re going home,” defender Josko Gvardiol said, “and celebrating.”

Led by captain Luka Modric, the celebration began on the field with the presentation of medals. Croatia, in all its checkerboard-uniform glory, rejoiced after another sterling performance on the world stage. Coach Zltako Dalic, a holdover from the 2018 championship appearance, hugged Modric and kissed him on the forehead.

The match marked the end of Modric’s World Cup career after four tournaments. At 37, he started all seven matches here and conducted his team with elegance and class as Croatia, a nation of 3.9 million, continued defying international odds.

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The Real Madrid star won the Golden Ball as the most valuable player of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where Croatia lost to France, 4-2, in the final. He and others will move on.

“The is the end of a process, the end of a journey,” Dalic said. “These are the moments we live for. … We have young players, and we have a great future. We have nothing to fear.”

The defeat failed to dampen Morocco’s month-long accomplishments. In becoming the first African team to advance to the semifinals, the Atlas Lions became the feel-good story of the World Cup and, following Croatia’s trendsetting march four years ago, inspired nontraditional programs. They also galvanized fans across Arab countries.

“Football makes people dream, especially children,” Coach Walid Regragui said. “We have allowed them to dream, kept the dream alive, and now they dream of being footballers and getting to the World Cup. That is priceless. It means more than winning any match.”

For Morocco, a World Cup run that transcends the sport

Morocco was seeking to become the first non-European or South American team to finish in the top three since the United States was third at the 1930 inaugural tournament. (There was no third-place game in the 13-team competition, and overall record determined placement.)

The only other non-European/South American semifinalist was South Korea, which finished fourth in 2002.

Before this year, the Atlas Lions had never advanced past the round of 16 and, in five previous tournament appearances, had won two of 16 matches. Here, they upset Spain and Portugal in the knockout stage before falling to France in the semifinal.

“We were given a 0.01 percent chance of winning the World Cup,” Regragui said. “Now we are one of the top four in the world. If you had told me that before the tournament, I would’ve accepted it right away.”

Morocco would have welcomed a better outcome in its farewell appearance, but at the very least, it will remember an entertaining affair.

Without the high stakes of a semifinal or final, third-place games often bring out oddities. In 1958, France’s Just Fontaine scored four times against West Germany. In 1994, Sweden goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli performed cartwheels and danced along with the music at the Rose Bowl. Eight years later, Turkey’s Hakan Sukur set a World Cup record by scoring 11 seconds into a game against South Korea.

On Saturday, the scoring did not come that early, but after Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou nearly spun the ball into his own net on a clearing attempt, each side posted goals in the first nine minutes.

Croatia went ahead in the seventh minute on a set piece cleverly designed and expertly executed. From 35 yards, Lovro Majer chipped a free kick not for a player rushing the net but to Ivan Perisic curling from the pack and slipping into the left side of the penalty area.

Perisic squared the ball into the center of the box for Gvardiol, 20, to finish with a 12-yard diving header. It was perfection.

Less than two minutes later, Morocco captain Hakim Ziyech launched a long free kick that Majer headed back toward his net. Realizing the danger he had created, Majer put his hands to his head. The inadvertent deflection served as an ideal setup for Achraf Dari behind the defense for a downward header past goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.

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Croatia went back ahead just before intermission. In his first start after five substitute appearances, Mislav Orsic collected a pass from Marko Livaja on the left side of the box.

There were possibilities here, but it would require creativity and fine technique. Orsic one-timed it with his trailing right leg, applying a chip for lift and a curl to fool Bounou. The ball took flight, skimmed off the soaring goalkeeper’s fingers, kissed the far post and dropped into the net.

A missed call prevented a Croatia penalty kick, and a minute later Livakovic made a desperate save on Youssef En-Nesyri. On the final touch of six tense minutes of stoppage time, Selim Amallah’s header streaked narrowly over the crossbar.

Initially, Moroccan players were crushed. But as a sea of supporters, many of whom had traveled from Morocco for the fantastic run in the knockout stage, saluted their effort, the Atlas Lions waved to the crowd. Their triumphs transcended all else.

“When we wake up tomorrow morning,” Regragui said, “we will realize what we achieved.”

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.