Morocco leaves the World Cup with a standing ovation and a new global reputation

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KHOR, Qatar — As the final cheers fell on the team around midnight at Al Bayt Stadium, the team returned the cheers to their grateful fans, and it became another new feature of this new World Cup to honor the team that did not win.

Morocco’s thrilling drive, built on defense and passion and sheer grit, finally veered towards the fumes of the third-place game, itself an unforeseeable destination.

“We are running out of steam,” said manager Walid Regragui, a charismatic 47-year-old who moved from Wydad AC in Casablanca to the Moroccan national team just three months and two weeks ago.

If he was still reeling from his press conference after Wednesday’s 2-0 semi-final loss to France, that would be natural. His team redefined Moroccan football, African football and Arab football, becoming the first World Cup semi-finalist in any of those categories. His team gave texture and tenor to this first World Cup in the Arab world.

Unlike many managers here, he expects to stay. After all, Thursday only brings the 107th day.

Morocco is mourning its defeat to France after the World Cup in that energized region

“They gave a very good image for the team all over the world,” he said of his players. “They showed their quality.” They showed, as goalkeeper Yassine Bounou said after seeing off the quarter-finals 1-0 to make Portugal their latest major victim, that “with that feeling of inferiority [against European teams especially]we have to get rid of it,” they must have gotten rid of some of it.

I told the players I was proud of them, Regragui said. “[King Mohammed VI] he is also proud of them. And the Moroccan people are proud. And I think the world as a whole is proud,” echoes his earlier statements about the world’s affection for outsiders.

“Of course,” he said, “we went further than Brazil, Spain, Germany – these top football sides. And that’s great for us, but in Africa we have to show it regularly.”

So far, they have beaten Belgium, Spain and Portugal — as well as drawing with Croatia and beating Canada — and have given France a run-in with enough chances that Regragui’s first question, from a Moroccan journalist, was about “world champions [France] collapsing in front of the Moroccan team.”

They went further than anyone could have imagined, and in the end Regragui would say: “This was perhaps a step too far – not in quality or in our tactics, but physically.” He had “too many players at 60 or 70 percent.” France had similar problems of illness and injury, but also the depth to deal with them.

Now the minds of Regragui and his sorely tested players can turn to something else worthwhile: the Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast. Now he’ll be managing something else he’ll have to manage: expectations. Then maybe in the future, Regragui said, “people will just consider it normal that Morocco is at this stage of the World Cup.”

World Cup in Qatar

Latest: France will face Argentina in the World Cup final after eliminating Morocco 2-0 in the semi-finals on Wednesday in Khor, Qatar. Les Bleus will face Lionel Messi and Argentina on Sunday at 10 a.m. Eastern for the World Cup. On Saturday, Morocco will play against Croatia in the match for third place.

Favorite of the World Cup: Morocco has had an amazing World Cup run, beating several European powers: Belgium, Spain and now Portugal. His success awakened pride and a rare unity throughout the Arab world, evoking, for some, an earlier era of pan-Arab nationalism.

Today’s view of the world: Off the pitch, the World Cup has been the scene of a fierce battle between the moralizing West and the increasingly embittered hosts Qatar and their Arab brethren.

Good+feeling: They have trained their entire careers to compete in the World Cup — developing endurance, strength and agility, and developing the mental strength to handle the pressures of the game. It is not easy to be an elite football referee.

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