Croatia beat Morocco 2-1 in third place play-off on Saturday as the African side’s historic 2022 World Cup ended in defeat.
It took just seven minutes for Croatia to open the scoring from a Joško Gvardiol header, before Achraf Dari equalized two minutes later.
In an open and thrilling game, Croatia regained the lead with a brilliant finish from Mislav Oršić just before half-time.
Despite their best efforts, Morocco could not find another equalizer, finishing the tournament in fourth place to cap a memorable few weeks in Qatar where Morocco became the first African nation to reach the semi-finals of the FIFA Cup. world.
Croatia’s third place is their second at a World Cup, having finished third in 1998. In Russia four years ago, Croatia were second.
After the game, Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalić said his side’s success was not lost on him.
“I am proud of my team and my country. For us bronze is a gold medal,” Dalić told BeIN Sports, according to FIFA. “We played a very difficult tournament.
“Also, I want to congratulate Morocco – they played well, they did a fantastic job. Really I’m proud, very happy. Maybe we didn’t expect Croatia to do something again big, but we are a small country with big dreams and congratulations to everyone, we wanted to go home winning not losing.
Asked about talismanic Croatian captain Luka Modrić – whose future with the national team remains a question mark at 37 – Dalić was full of praise, hoping he would return for the team’s campaign at Euro 2024.
“Modrić is our captain, he is our big voice and he also played fantastically this tournament. He is 37 years old but he played like a maximum of 25. He is our leader and everyone follows him.
It’s the World Cup match that most teams don’t want to play.
Just days after losing in the semi-finals, the teams must play again despite the hope of a tournament victory that has just been born in their minds.
But for two of the tournament’s surprise stories – Croatia and Morocco – the drive to finish with a win was evident from the first minute.
Morocco wanted to cap off their historic run in style, while Croatia looked to cement their second third-place finish in six World Cup appearances.
From the start, defense was paramount. After playing a goalless draw earlier in the tournament, within the first 10 minutes at the Khalifa International Stadium, both teams had found the back of the net.
First, the young star defender of Croatia, Gvardiol, gave the advantage to his team from the 7th minute after a superbly worked free kick. The cut ball in the area was headed in behind by Ivan Perišić for the 20-year-old to propel his team forward.
However, just two minutes later, Morocco equalized, the goal coming from another free kick. After the ball was looped into the area via a deflection, Dari was the lucky beneficiary as he headed home without a Croatian marker nearby.
And the game continued at a blistering pace, with Croatia enjoying the majority of possessions and chances.
As the Moroccan fans again provided a fantastic atmosphere, the chances came and went in thrilling fashion – Moroccan striker Youssef En-Nesyri’s header from a corner drifted just wide.
But with a moment of magic, Croatia once again took the lead, this time at halftime.
After a scrappy game on the edge of the Moroccan penalty area, a beautifully curled finish off the post by Oršić once again gave the European nation the lead.
After the break, the chances continued to flow, but neither side created any real scoring chances.
On the hour mark, Andrej Kramarić was forced off the pitch with an injury, with the 31-year-old in tears as he was helped off the pitch.
With 15 minutes remaining, Croatia thought they had a penalty when Gvardiol was brought down in the Moroccan box after a magnificent run. However, the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) deemed it not a foul, to the amazement of the Croatian players, although it appears Sofyan Amrabat cut off the defender’s heels.
In the dying minutes, when Morocco needed a goal, it was actually Croatia who looked most likely to score, with Mateo Kovačić coming the closest.
But, with almost the last kick of the match, En-Nesyri’s towering header flew just over the bar as Morocco’s equalizer hopes were shattered.
In the end, Croatia were able to hold their ground for a narrow victory to match the achievement of the country’s so-called ‘bronze generation’ in 1998.
For Morocco, their magical few weeks in Qatar are coming to an end, having won the hearts and minds of an entire continent with their pioneering run to the last four of the World Cup.