Doha, Qatar – It is the first of the three M in action on the penultimate day of the 2022 World Cup, the one that the world least expected, soccer fans and those who plotted the movements up there that would still be among the calls.
Messi and Mbappé can wait. Morocco will take center stage on Saturday, hoping to end the fairytale run in Qatar with unprecedented achievements.
Morocco will face Croatia at the Khalifa International Stadium in the third-place match of Qatar 2022.
Croatia failed to match, or better, their 2018 outing where they lost in the final to France.
Morocco, meanwhile, reached unprecedented heights, winning millions of hearts and gaining followers faster than a new pop sensation on Instagram in the historic run to the quarterfinals.
For a team that was not used to winning a lot, especially in a World Cup, seeing Belgium, Canada, Spain and Portugal defeat gave their fans hope.
Since beating Belgium, Morocco had been hoping for a place in the round of 16. The expectation grew when they beat Spain. Fantasy gave way to faith after beating Portugal. For a team that, at first annoyed their opponents, then alarmed them, finally left them horrified, gaining both momentum and rolling down the hill as they watched the final.
Until they faced France. At Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday, the dream did not materialize the way Morocco wanted, perhaps due to the introduction of a new football, the occasion or simply the skill gap between the two sets of players.
Despite the heartbreak, Morocco fans are hoping for a winning finish to their World Cup, one that has already been an extension of a lifelong dream.
“Whatever happens now, it will not detract from what they have done, they made history,” Omer, visiting Doha from Casablanca for the World Cup, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s [the World Cup campaign] started with Croatia, it will end with Croatia. I hope we beat them this time. [the group stage match ended 0-0]. I hope we end well. But whatever happens, we are very proud of the team; we are fully behind them and we are supporting them.”
A masterclass in French on the pitch ensured that the Atlas Lions do not finish higher than third in the World Cup. But they can take third place, a finishing position that was unthinkable to most at the start of the tournament for the 22nd-ranked team.
“Winning matters. The team didn’t make it to the final, but they won’t give up,” said Amine, who is also visiting Qatar from Morocco. “The team’s performance has changed the mentality everywhere. There is a winning mentality now and it is refreshing to see that. A win on Saturday will make a big difference at home.”
For Imane, a Moroccan living in Paris, a victory on Saturday “has a lot of meaning.”
“It may not sound like much, but getting third place is really important for us and it means a lot because it shows that Morocco’s World Cup trip, as historic as it was, was not just luck but the result of the effort of the players and the faith of the fans”, he said.
“I care,” said Ilham, a Moroccan citizen living in Qatar. “I want to see them win third place. They deserve it. They have made us so happy and I want them to be happy.”
For some, the loss to France did not take the shine off Morocco’s run to the quarterfinals, where they became the first team from Africa to reach the World Cup semifinals.
“This is football, this is how it works,” Fatima, a Moroccan supporter, said after Wednesday’s 2-0 loss. “But we are very proud of the team. Moroccan football has totally changed now. This is not a loss, by no means. We are the Champions.”
Yasmina, a Qatari resident from Morocco, believes winning third place would be “incredible and honorable.”
“We have already gained a lot during this World Cup: pride, unity, solidarity and drive,” he said.
“But I think the pressure is less and the stress is much less on Saturday. I would love for Morocco to beat Croatia, but whatever happens, they are my champions.”
With the amount of soccer, competitions, and other events in life, most tend to forget the losing finalists of a World Cup, let alone the team that finishes third. Losing a semi-final is already devastating enough, but putting the memories aside and preparing for one more game, which will not allow you to relive your dreams, can be demanding on the mind and body.
However, for the Moroccan fans, a victory on Saturday will be the end-of-year bonus that no one had asked their bosses for.
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