KHOR, Qatar – A final boom of applause rained down on a team around midnight at Al Bayt Stadium, that team cheered towards their grateful fans, and became another unheard-of detail of this new World Cup celebrating team who hadn’t won.
Morocco’s exhilarating ride, built on defence, passion and some of the toughest toughness, had finally veered into the fumes of the match for third place, itself an unforeseen destination.
“We’re on our last legs,” said coach Walid Regragui, the charismatic 47-year-old who had moved from Casablanca’s Wydad AC to the Moroccan international just three months and two weeks earlier.
If he was still dizzy at the time of his press conference following Wednesday’s 2-0 semi-final defeat by France, it would be natural. His team had redefined Moroccan football, African football and Arab football, becoming the first World Cup semi-finalists in one of these categories. His team had given consistency and tenor to this first World Cup in the Arab world.
Unlike a lot of coaches here, he thinks he’ll stay. After all, only the 107th day comes on Thursday.
Morocco mourns defeat to France after World Cup race in that region full of energy
“They have given the team a very good image all over the world,” he said of his players. “They showed their quality.” They demonstrated, as goalkeeper Yassine Bounou said after spending a 1-0 quarter-final draw Portugal’s latest high-profile victim, that ‘with this feeling of inferiority [against European teams especially]we have to get rid of it,” they certainly had got rid of part of it.
“I told the players I was proud of them,” said Regragui. “[King Mohammed VI] he is also proud of them. And the Moroccan people are proud. And I think the world as a whole is proud of that,” an echo of his earlier statements about the world’s fondness for underdogs.
“Of course,” he said, “we went beyond Brazil, Spain, Germany, these big football clubs. And that’s great for us, but in Africa we have to demonstrate it on a regular basis.”
For now, they had beaten Belgium, Spain and Portugal – as well as drawing with Croatia and beating Canada – and had given France a tussle, with sufficient chances for the first question to Regragui, from a Moroccan journalist, concerned «the champion of the world [France] crumbling in front of the Moroccan team”.
They had ventured further than anyone imagined, so Regragui would end up saying: “This was perhaps a step further, not in terms of quality or tactics, but physically.” He had “too many players at 60 or 70 percent.” France have had similar problems of illness and injury, but also the depth to handle them.
Now the minds of Regragui and his fierce players can turn towards something else precious: the African Cup in the Ivory Coast. Now they’ll navigate with something else they’ll need to manage: expectations. So maybe in the future, Regragui said, “people will see it as normal for Morocco to be at this stage of the World Cup.”
World Cup in Qatar
The last one: France will face Argentina in the World Cup final after eliminating Morocco, 2-0, in the semi-final on Wednesday in Khor, Qatar. Les Bleus will face Lionel Messi and Argentina on Sunday at 10:00 Eastern for the world championship. Morocco will face Croatia in the third-place match on Saturday.
The Treasure of the World Cup: Morocco had an amazing run at the World Cup, beating several European powers: Belgium, Spain and now Portugal. His success sparked pride and rare unity across the Arab world, evoking, for some, an earlier era of pan-Arab nationalism.
Today’s worldview: Off the pitch, the World Cup was the scene of a rancorous contest between a moralizing West and increasingly outraged Qatari hosts and their Arab brethren.
Well+Being: They have trained their entire career to perform at World Cups, building stamina, strength and agility and developing the mental toughness to handle the pressures of the game. It’s not easy being an elite soccer referee.