World Cup: Dreams shattered, Croatia and Morocco dust themselves off for bronze

Croatia's Luka Modric and Morocco's Azzedine Ounahi in action during their World Cup Group F match on Nov 23. PHOTO: AFP

DOHA – As Croatia and Morocco pick up the pieces after their World Cup semi-final defeats, the two teams will welcome the prospect of potentially leaving Qatar on a high when they square up in the third-place play-off on Saturday.

Beating two world-class teams in Argentina and France to advance to the final proved to be a step too far respectively for Croatia and Morocco, who handsomely defied pre-tournament odds to reach the last four.

Morocco rewrote history along the way when Walid Regragui’s fearless squad became the first African team to make the semi-finals of football’s showpiece event.

They will be welcomed home as heroes regardless of the result, having not only earned the respect and support of the continent and the Arab world, but also having found a place in the hearts of neutral fans who love a true underdog story.

Croatia and Morocco will face off for a second time after playing out a 0-0 draw in their group opener.

When asked on Friday about playing for third place, Regragui said: “It is a little bit difficult. It is very complicated for both teams. You are so disappointed, you have just lost a semi-final (to France) and then two days later you have to go back out there.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know. It is like the booby prize. I’m sorry for speaking like this.

“I understand it should be important, I understand it is better to finish third than fourth, but, for me, my takeaway is just that we didn’t get to the final.

“But we want to be as positive as possible, for our fans. Finishing third would be great for our image.

“It is important we play with a positive attitude and give everything. After this game, I hope we have no regrets. My players still have the appetite to finish on the podium. We’re still excited to play despite the disappointment.

“We need to clear our heads and go into this game with our heads held high.”

For 2018 runners-up Croatia, reaching a second consecutive final had looked unlikely when they won just one group game.

But through sheer graft and tenacity, and two penalty shoot-out wins over Japan and favourites Brazil, earned them a semi-final with Argentina, where an in-form Lionel Messi was the architect of their destruction.

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Sazali Abdul Aziz looks ahead to the battle for third place and to which team will lift the World Cup trophy.

For Croatia, it represented an opportunity missed to crown their golden generation of players, but coach Zlatko Dalic is still hoping that his side – despite being “tired, exhausted and drained” – can win their second bronze medal after 1998.

“For us, this is a major match. It is a fight for a medal. Morocco are a massive surprise at this tournament, they will come with the same mindset as us, it will be a difficult match,” he said.

“In 1998, it was the first medal for Croatia, it was a major thing that was achieved. It was recognition, considering we’d only just achieved our independence (from the then Yugoslavia). It was the beginning of a shiny period of football achievements.

“It is a different thing now. We have a silver medal and we have done more.

“This World Cup means a lot and we want our people to be proud of us. 1998 was more important because it was our first but, god willing, we will achieve the same tomorrow. We are a small country but we achieve a lot.”

The game could be 37-year-old midfielder Luka Modric’s last with the national team but Dalic is hoping that his star captain can continue to play up to Euro 2024.

“I hope he will be with us and I am looking forward to that. I am quite certain he will be,” he said.

“Luka Modric will decide personally how he feels. Knowing how he feels about the national team and about football, I’m pretty sure he will be, but of course this is his decision.” REUTERS

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