Morocco’s World Cup finish is bittersweet for Arab fans

BEIRUT (AP) — Morocco’s fans in the Arab world took the North African team’s 2-1 loss to Croatia in Saturday’s World Cup third-place playoff philosophically. The team had already made history, becoming the first Arab and first African team to reach the semifinals in the international soccer tournament.

Its loss to France on Wednesday dashed fans’ hopes that Morocco would become an underdog champion, but many had hoped that it would at least take third place in facing off against Croatia.

In the Moroccan capital, national team’s fans were disappointed by Saturday’s loss, but pointed with pride to the team’s historic performance.

“They remain champions in our eyes,” said Soukaina Makkaoui, a fan in Rabat. “They are now among the four top teams in the world.”

Ali Hachimi, another Moroccan fan, was both proud and sad.

“We would have liked to finish third because the players deserved it after giving their all,” he said.

Along the way, the Moroccan team charmed many Arab soccer fans who saw in the team a reflection of themselves, with players waving the Palestinian flag after their wins and celebrating on the field with their mothers and children.

Seeing Palestinian flags fluttering in the stadium “was an indescribable feeling,” said Ibrahim al-Lilli, who was among thousands of fans in the Gaza Strip who gathered to cheer for Morocco on Saturday.

The games affirmed that the Arab street “supports the Palestinian cause regardless of what their governments do,” he said, referring to the Abraham Accord normalization agreements that four Arab countries — including Morocco — signed with Israel in 2020.

Fans in the besieged Gaza enclave found a bitter solace in the fact that the northern Africa Arab country got as far as it did.

“It’s a defeat, albeit with a taste of victory and joy,” said Ahmed al-Najjar, another fan in Gaza.

In Beirut’s Tarik al-Jdideh neighborhood, where fans were also rooting for Morocco, Muhammad Shaalan said the team’s fourth-place finish is still a point of pride for the Arab world.

“They arrived to the final games and they defeated three of the best big European teams (Belgium, Spain and Portugal),” he said. “I bow my head in respect to them as an Arab team.”

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Associated Press writers Fadi Tawil in Beirut, Tarik El Barakah in Rabat, Morocco, and Wafaa Shurafa in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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