Al Khor, Qatar – Wednesday evening at Al Bayt Stadium was the extension of a dream for Morocco.
Fans across the world, and not just Moroccans, had pressed their snooze buttons to allow the dream to linger a bit longer, stretching it for the extra minutes of that final hurrah.
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Morocco had already exceeded expectations by reaching the World Cup semifinals at Qatar 2022, beating Belgium, Canada, Spain and Portugal along the way.
On Wednesday evening, between them and Argentina at Lusail Stadium, stood another giant of world football: two-time winners and reigning champions France – arguably the biggest, sternest and truest test of whether Qatar 2022 was a dream or reality for Morocco.
Since beating Belgium, Morocco hoped for a last-16 slot. Expectations grew when they beat Spain. Fantasy gave way to belief after beating Portugal.
But on Wednesday at Al Bayt Stadium – maybe due to the introduction of a new football, the occasion or just the gulf in skills between the two sets of players – the dream did not materialise in the way Morocco wanted.
A French masterclass on the pitch ensured the Atlas Lions will not finish higher than third in the World Cup.
“This is football, that’s how it works,” Fatima, a Moroccan supporter, said after the 2-0 loss. “But we’re really proud of the team. Moroccan football has totally changed now. This is not a loss, no way. We are the champions.”
As the final whistle blew, a team huddle took place in the middle. The French team celebrated their progress to a second successive final. Morocco, meanwhile, soaked in what they had achieved: glory, respect and unprecedented heights.
There were shouts of “Morocco, Morocco” and “seer, seer” (go, go) from the stands, although not in unison like the previous matches. While some made an early exit, the majority in red and green stayed back, applauding the players who performed one last prostration in prayer on the field.
“Proud, proud, proud. That’s how I’m feeling right now,” Amine, another Moroccan supporter, said. “They made history, they’re still a young team and now we have ambition for future world cups. We’re not going to give up now. It’s a change of a mindset, there’s a winning mentality instilled in the players, the team and the country now. This will change our future generations.”
For Youssra, it was the performance and not the result on the pitch that made her cry.
“I’m a bit emotional but not disappointed,” she said. “It’s been amazing so far. We’re super happy and super proud. They’ve made history. They’re fighters. We’re supporting them till the end, no matter what.”
For the France-born Shaima, it was a bittersweet win.
“My parents are from Morocco so I was supporting Morocco tonight. They did something great. They showed the world that a team from Africa can really achieve something great.”
Morocco will be back for one last hurrah on Saturday in the third-place playoff against Croatia, the team against which the Atlas Lions’ fairy tale journey began at Qatar 2022 last month.
There will still be chants of “seer, seer” inside Khalifa International Stadium, with renewed vigour and hopes that the deadlock against the same opponents from November is bettered.
For some travelling fans though, winning or losing on Saturday will not take the gloss away from the “dream run”.
“We’re so, so proud of the Lions,” Lamia said. “Not one of us could’ve dreamt that our team will reach the semi-finals of the World Cup. We really want to win third place but it’s fine if it doesn’t happen. We’ve already done more than what we could’ve imagined.”