Croatia beat Morocco for third place in the World Cup
AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Rolling out an inflatable World Cup before kick-off just felt cruel. The giant replica has been an integral part of pre-match preparation throughout the tournament, but Saturday’s third-place match between Croatia and Morocco was the only game that didn’t need it.
This is the only game where the contestants know there’s no way they can win the trophy they came for.
– World Cup 2022: news and features | bracket | Time schedule
And the fact that it comes just days after that painful semi-final elimination can make it feel like a cruel afterthought; This was certainly the case for England and Belgium four years ago when two teams aiming to win the tournament had to endure another 90 minutes just wanting to go home.
“To be honest, it’s not really an important game,” said Morocco coach Walid Regragui on Friday, mixed with more positive messages about the possibility of an African team finishing third for the first time in World Cup history.
Croatia exits the 2022 World Cup with a bronze medal after finishing runners-up in 2018. (Photo by Robert Michael/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)
Whether it was a burgeoning competitive spirit or a sense of freedom created by the reduced stakes, Croatia and Morocco made this quirky event a much more enjoyable affair than the last iteration in 2018.
There were two goals and a marriage proposal within the first 20 minutes. After the dismal 0-0 draw between the teams in the group stage, Luka Modric faked a free-kick in the seventh minute. Instead, Lovro Majer flicked a straight ball into the penalty area. Ivan Perisic rotated his body brilliantly and planted a header back across the box where Josko Gvardiol threw himself into the air to pass Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou.
Less than two minutes later, Hakim Ziyech’s set piece was poorly defended by Majer and the ball flew allowing Achraf Dari to equalize with a simple header. To the right of the press box, a man chose this state of affairs to ask the question. He got the answer he was looking for, followed by a sea of cellphones pointing in the happy couple’s direction to capture and share a moment of joy.
That’s what Morocco’s tireless fans – and their hard-hitting team – brought to this World Cup, and it was clear they wanted something tangible to show for their efforts: the bronze medal for third place.
Regragui made just three changes, at least one of them due to injury, while his Croatian counterpart spent pre-match preparation criticizing the appointment of Abdulrahman al-Jassim, who at the age of 35 became the first Qatari referee to officiate at a World Cup and stressed the importance of a medal to his nation. Croatia won bronze in 1998, a moment Dalic described as “the beginning of our success” before adding that “every medal is a big deal for us”.
The cheering at what turned out to be the winning goal suggested so. Bilal El Khannouss lost the ball cheaply on his own edge of the box. Marko Livaja picked it up and fed it to Mislav Orsic, who sent Bounou into the net with a superb flick over his left post.
Halftime came and went. The newly engaged couple posed for more photos. As if to underscore that this game was still an entertaining spectacle, the second half eased as the physical strain of seven games in four weeks came to the fore.
Andrej Kramaric appeared to be in tears as he cautiously walked away on the hour. Dari followed him a few minutes later before Jawad El Yamiq hamstringed to the dugout. Youssef En-Nesyri missed two opportunities late in the second half to force extra time amid some heated arguments on both sides, largely due to disagreements with al-Jassim. But Croatia persevered.
An injury-stricken Moroccan side will be disappointed not to have won a medal for their efforts, but made history by becoming the first African side to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images)
Dalic and Modric, 37, hugged. Dalic kissed Modric on the forehead, hoping that such a remarkable football brain will actually carry on until Euro 2024. The heavily outnumbered Croatian fans made their voices heard in recognition of a third ‘podium’ after 1998 and a runner-up four years ago. Morocco still achieved the best result ever for an African nation.
Modric led his team to accept the medals from FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who appeared to have been booed by the fans as he took his place on the hastily constructed stage. Little by little, Modric was joined by his teammates for a photo. Of course, what would normally happen at this point is for the captain to raise a trophy – another reminder that the real thing is tempting but inescapably out of reach.
Instead, other carers and family members joined the group to celebrate a moment of success amid widespread enduring disappointment at being the warm-up act for tomorrow’s final.
Morocco had already won so many hearts but Croatia ended their stay in Qatar with a physical reward. It just wasn’t the price they wanted.