AL RAYYAN – Luka Modric high-fived and embraced his Croatia teammates after what was likely the midfield great’s last appearance at the World Cup.
Some of the Morocco players sank to their knees in dismay, while others went in search of the referee to complain.
So much for this being a meaningless game.
Croatia ended up taking third place at the World Cup after a 2-1 win over Morocco at Khalifa International Stadium on Saturday.
“It is as if we have won the gold,” said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić, whose team lost in the final four years ago.
To some, the third-place match is considered to be little more than an exhibition between two losing semifinalists. The day before the match, Morocco coach Walid Regragui described it as a “booby prize.”
However, as the final whistle blew on Morocco’s historic run at the World Cup, the disappointment was clear to see.
So, too, was the delight on Croatian faces.
Modric, at the age of 37 and a serial winner of soccer’s biggest prizes with Real Madrid, could not keep the smile from his face as he went up to collect his bronze medal.
“This medal is very important for us, for me, for my country, for Croatia as a national team,” Modric said. “We confirm with this medal that Croatia is playing an important role in world of football. We are leaving Qatar as winners.”
The World Cup final between defending champion France and Argentina is scheduled for Sunday at Lusail Stadium.
Mislav Orsic scored the decisive goal for Croatia shortly before halftime to ensure Modric finished on a winning note, if this does indeed turn out to be his last World Cup match.
“Now it is step by step by step and continue until least the Nations League and after we will see,” Modric said.
Defender Josko Gvardiol put Croatia ahead in the seventh minute with a diving header, but Achraf Dari evened the score in the ninth.
It is the second time Croatia has taken third place at the World Cup. The team also achieved that feat in its first appearance at the tournament as an independent nation in 1998.
“These are the moments we live for, we work for, we train for,” Dalić said. “That’s the most emotional moment of the World Cup for us, tonight’s match and the win.”
After becoming the first African team to reach the World Cup semifinals, Morocco’s tournament ended in two losses. But the team’s achievements in Qatar will be remembered for the outpouring of pride among Arab nations.
“Of course we are disappointed, but when we wake up tomorrow we will realize how much we have achieved,” Regragui said. “We had 0.01% of winning this World Cup at the outset and we managed to get through to the last four. We played against some of the footballing powerhouses of the world.
“We are now one of the top four teams in the world and if you had told me that before the World Cup and that Morocco would be No. 4 in the world, I would have accepted that straight away.”
Morocco’s run to the semifinals was the unlikeliest story of the tournament, topping a group that contained Croatia and second-ranked Belgium. The team then beat Spain and Portugal in the knockout stages.
“For me, football makes people dream and children in particular," Regragui said. "In Morocco and Africa, we have kept those dreams alive. It means more than a victory at the World Cup.”
Hakim Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi became the first Moroccan players to participate in 10 World Cup matches.
Gvardiol scored the opened goal, but it is his performances in defense that have stood out at the World Cup. Already linked with a host Europe’s leading clubs, he is likely to win more admirers after his exploits in Qatar. Dalic said the Leipzig center back deserves to be named the best young player of the tournament.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports