Morocco looks to the future after World Cup dream ends
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Morocco made history, but couldn’t make it past Kylian Mbappé and France.
The first African country to reach the semifinals of the World Cup was eventually beaten by defending champions France, losing 2-0 at Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday.
There is still the chance to win the third place match against Croatia on Saturday, but the dream of becoming the first team from outside of Europe or South America to go all the way to a final is over.
Morocco coach Walid Regragui and his players became the unlikeliest story of the World Cup and even in defeat, pushed France all the way.
“My players gave everything. They’ve gone as far as they could,” said Regragui. “They wanted to rewrite the history books, but you can’t win a World Cup with miracles, you have to do it with hard work and that’s what we are going to do, keep working.”
EXPECTATION VS. PERFORMANCE
No one could have expected Morocco to break new boundaries for African soccer by making it to the semifinals.
It was also the first Arab nation to go so far at a World Cup.
And it did so on merit - topping a group that contained 2018 finalist Croatia and second-ranked Belgium, before progressing past favorites Spain and Portugal in the knockout stages.
But perhaps Morocco’s best performance came against France when it had to contend with injuries to key players and conceding a goal inside five minutes. In the face of those challenges it still managed to pressure France for long periods until Randal Kolo Muani’s 79th minute strike sealed the win for Les Bleus.
The performance typified Morocco’s spirit at this tournament and the quality of its players.
Regragui has won plenty of admirers for his tactical acumen against some of the giants of international soccer.
It will be interesting to see if any offers come his way from leading club teams in Europe - and whether he would be tempted to take up a new challenge.
He says he is committed to leading Morocco at the 2023 African Cup of Nations, which will come as a relief to the country’s fans.
Key defender and captain Romain Saiss is 32 and may have played in his last World Cup, but Morocco has a lot of young players, who could go again in four years when the tournament is held in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Midfielder Azz-Eddine Ounahi has been one of the brightest emerging talents at the tournament and could be the subject of interest from leading clubs in January or next summer.
At 22 he is yet to reach his peak and currently plays his club soccer for Angers, the bottom club in France’s first division.
Achraf Hakimi is already established at Paris Saint-Germain, but the 24-year-old right back has the potential to develop further and lead a golden generation for Morocco.
First of all Morocco wants to round off an unforgettable World Cup by winning its third place match against Croatia.
Focus will then turn to the African Cup of Nations and Regragui is comfortable with the added expectation after the success in Qatar.
“There’s more pressure. We know that we were often the favorites, but now in the semifinals we couldn’t hide,” he said. “I think we will have a bit of time to find our way in the competition. The next match is in March.
“But like I said before, I’m not hiding. If we don’t get to at least the semifinals, then I will leave. It has to be that way.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports