Picking up the pieces

Doha, December 16

To some, it’s little more than a meaningless exhibition match. To others, it’s a chance to become “immortal”. The third-place playoff at the World Cup can be a confusing concept.

“You are so disappointed, you’ve just lost a semifinal and then two days later you have to go back out there,” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said today.

Croatia’s Luka Modric during training. Reuters

Regragui’s history-making team — the first African nation to reach the World Cup semifinals — will play Croatia tomorrow at Khalifa International Stadium.

“It’s like the booby prize,” Regragui said. “I am sorry for speaking like this. I understand that it should be important, I understand that it is better to finish third than fourth, but for me, my takeaway is that we just didn’t get to the final.”

Morocco’s run to the semifinals in Qatar provided the most improbable story of the tournament. The team was also the first Arab nation to go so far in football’s biggest event, generating an outpouring of pride among Arab countries.

After such a wild and dizzying ride, it’s understandable that Regragui sounded so flat when looking ahead to the match against Croatia. It’s also a measure of his own ambition that he ends an unforgettable tournament for African soccer with a sense of disappointment. “Yes, finishing third would be great for our image. We would be on the podium,” the coach said. “But you know what, even if we win the game tomorrow we won’t have got to the final and we won’t have won the World Cup.”

The atmosphere from the Croatian side has been more upbeat. The players have spoken of the importance of winning another medal. Croatia had finished runners-up at the last World Cup.

Forward Andrej Kramaric described it as the chance to “become an immortal hero in your country”. “Eight of us from (the tournament in) Russia understand that feeling of winning a medal at the World Cup and we have a lot of players who haven’t experienced that and would love to do that because it’s something that will stay with you for the rest of their life,” Kramaric said.

Luka Modric, who is likely playing in his last World Cup, had similar thoughts. “We need to leave everything to win the bronze medal and let our fans celebrate one more time,” he said.

To finish second and third in back-to-back World Cups would further secure the legacy of a golden generation for Croatia. “Saturday’s match is not a small one for us, but a big final, a fight for third place, for a medal,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said. “We have to prepare in every sense. It’s a big thing if we take the bronze medal, that would be great. The difference is being third or fourth in the world, we will do everything to do that.” — AP

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