Morocco makes another World Cup statement despite loss

AL KHOR, Qatar (AP) — Yassine Bounou stretched out his arm with everything he had, desperately trying to get something, anything, in the way of the ball. It was no use.

France substitute Randal Kolo Muani had come on only seconds earlier and with his first touch assured the defending champions of a second straight World Cup final, putting an end to Morocco’s proud fight once and for all.

France ended up winning 2-0 and will face Argentina for the title on Sunday.

But it wasn’t until that moment, in the 79th minute of an enthralling semifinal match at Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday, that the two-time champions could breathe easily.

“My players gave everything,” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said. “They’ve gone as far as they could. It’s difficult for them to take now. They wanted to rewrite the history books, but you can’t win a World Cup with miracles, you have to do it with hard work and that’s what we are going to do, keep working.”

The team that has provided the most improbable story of this year’s World Cup got off to a terrible start. Morocco lost two players from its starting lineup and conceded a goal to an opposition player for the first time in the tournament — all by the 21st minute.

The sea of red shirts in the stands still dominated the atmosphere, overpowering the massively outnumbered France supporters even after Theo Hernandez scored in the fifth minute.

As inspiring as Morocco has been in becoming the first African nation to reach the World Cup semifinals, the fans who have cheered them all the way have felt fundamental to an unforgettable journey.

The tone had been set even before kickoff as the now familiar deafening whistles greeted France’s players as they emerged for their pre-match warm-up. It got even louder as the French national anthem was played, coming close to drowning out the stadium’s loudspeaker system.

When Morocco’s anthem played, the noise reached yet new levels.

The theme of Morocco’s run has been that anything is possible. Not even the prospect of facing the defending champions and superstar forward Kylian Mbappe could quell the sense of anticipation.

Yet Morocco’s plans were in disarray before the game even started. Central defender Nayef Aguerd was pulled out of the team after the warm-up session and was replaced by Achraf Dari. Romain Saiss, another central defender and the team’s captain, only lasted a little while longer. He was substituted after 21 minutes, giving way for Selim Amallah.

Both players had been surprise inclusions in the Morocco team because both were injured.

“We had too many players who were at 60-70% and have been for a few games now and we nevertheless got through to the semifinals,” Regragui said.

With the defense hurting, France was able to take an early lead. Morocco had managed four shutouts through five games in Qatar but trailed early after Hernandez scored. Prior to that, the team’s defense had conceded only an own-goal from Aguerd in the 2-1 win over Canada in the group stage.

Things weren’t going well, but a team that had made it this far by defying the odds was not ready to give up on the chance to become the first nation from outside of Europe or South America to make it to a World Cup final.

The Moroccans regrouped and had some chances to score, including Jawad El Yamiq’s spectacular overhead kick off the post late in the first half.

Morocco had already made history by joining the United States and South Korea as the only teams from outside soccer’s two dominant continents to get this far. It is also the first Arab nation to play in the semifinals.

The team topped a group that contained 2018 finalist Croatia and second-ranked Belgium, and then progressed past 2010 champion Spain and Portugal in the knockout stages.

Morocco has developed a reputation for its strong defense under Regragui. But giving up a goal so early required the team to push forward and take risks at the back.

And right up until Kolo Muani’s goal, it still felt like anything was possible.

“Over the past 20 years you can say France is the top footballing country in the world,” Regragui said. “I’m proud because I grew up in France and I learned my trade there. Sometimes you criticize French coaches and French football, but they have the best players and the best coaches, the best team in the world.

“If France won (the final) it would be great because we could say we lost to the world champion.”

___

James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

___

AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.