Maybe it’s an extreme comparison but at first glance Saturday’s third-place match between Croatia and Morocco at the Khalifa Stadium here is something like that. It’s that pivotal ‘seventh’ World Cup match that no team wants to play, falling on the wrong side of the equation. Neither would you, if you were told that consolation prizes are your lot, that wooden spoons somehow outnumber golden laurel wreaths.
Morocco coach Walid Regragui, who had just caught his breath after that confusing marathon against France in the second semi-final, was asked how he would now prepare for the third-place match. “I’m undecided,” he said, “The third-place match will be tough for us, especially mentally. We have many injuries and we’re exhausted after this match.”
“(But) I want to win this game, we will do everything to win it, but I also think I have to give some playing time to players who haven’t experienced the World Cup yet. They deserve it. They were fantastic team players and therefore we will try to find a middle ground to field a strong team”.
On Fridays, Zlatko Dalic And Matthew Kovacic of Croatia cut very tired figures as they appeared for the usual pre-match press conference, looking like they’d be anywhere but here.
However, diplomacy would prevail. “For us this is an important match, a chance for a medal,” coach Dalic would say, “This is an important final for smaller nations, smaller teams.
Maybe that’s because Dalic and Kovacic come from an ethos where a bronze medal match has great significance. “In 1998, winning the bronze was very important for us. We had just gained independence, we were a young country, so that medal is very important in our history,” Dalic would remind us of the rookie’s third place after beating l ‘Holland to France ’98.
A second place medal four years ago, a chance for a second bronze here, and Dalic and the rest of the Croatians at home would gladly take it. “Of course, we would have liked to have been in the final,” added Kovacic.
Indeed, the importance of the idea is such that after the semi-final defeat against Argentina, Dalic, almost immediately, started stressing the need to lift the morale of his players to be ready for the third-place match.
“This is perhaps the last time for the Golden Generation,” Dalic would remind us.
The story of third place also awaits Morocco. Having dared to dream, and coming almost to the end, would the consolation of a third place suffice for the North Africans? “The dream is the final,” Regragui said before the semi-final against France, “We don’t want to settle for a semi-final just because we’re a small African team.”
On Friday, two days after racing perilously close to France, and before the third-place match, the lure of the podium seemed irresistible, if not entirely redeemable. “It will help our Fifa rankings,” he said with a touch of pragmatism, but would not deny the idea that in the ambition they harbored here, it would still keep Walid Regragui undecided.