Doha, Qatar – It is the first of the three Ms in action on the penultimate day of World Cup 2022, the one that the world, football fans and those plotting the moves up there least expected to still be among the call-outs.
Messi and Mbappe can wait. Morocco will be taking centre stage on Saturday, hoping to finish the fairytale run in Qatar with achievements unprecedented.
Morocco will take on Croatia at Khalifa International Stadium in the third-place playoff at Qatar 2022.
Croatia failed to match, or better, their 2018 outing where they lost in the final to France.
Morocco, meanwhile, have reached unprecedented heights, won millions of hearts and gained followers more rapidly than a new pop sensation on Instagram in the historical run to the last four.
For a team that was not used to winning much, especially at a World Cup, the sight of downing Belgium, Canada, Spain and Portugal gave its followers hope.
Since beating Belgium, Morocco hoped for a last-16 slot. Expectations grew when they beat Spain. Fantasy gave way to belief after beating Portugal. For a team that, at first, annoyed their opposition, then alarmed them, had finally left them aghast, gaining as much momentum as rolling down a hill as they eyed the final.
Until they faced France. At Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday, the dream did not materialise in the way Morocco wanted, perhaps due to the introduction of a new football, the occasion or just the gulf in skills between the two sets of players.
Despite the heartbreak, Morocco fans are hoping for a winning end to their World Cup, one that has already been an extension of a dream of a lifetime.
“Whatever happens now, it’ won’t take away from what they’ve done, they made history,” Omer, visiting Doha from Casablanca for the World Cup, told Al Jazeera.
“It [the World Cup campaign] started with Croatia, it will end with Croatia. I hope we beat them this time [the group stage match ended 0-0]. I hope we finish well. But whatever happens, we’re super proud of the team; we’re fully behind them and we’re supporting them.”
A French masterclass on the pitch ensured the Atlas Lions will not finish higher than third in the World Cup. But they can take third, a final position that was unthinkable by most at the start of the tournament for the 22nd-ranked side.
“Winning matters. The team didn’t make it to the final but it won’t give up,” Amine, also visiting Qatar from Morocco, said. “The team’s performance has changed mindsets everywhere. There’s a winning mentality now and it’s refreshing to see that. A win on Saturday will make a massive difference back home.”
For Imane, a Moroccan living in Paris, a win on Saturday “holds a lot of meaning”.
“It might not seem like much, but getting third place is actually important for us and it holds a lot of meaning because it shows that Morocco’s journey at the World Cup, as historical as it was, was not just luck but the result of the players’ effort and the supporters’ faith,” she said.
“It does matter to me,” Ilham, a Moroccan citizen residing in Qatar, said. “I want to see them win third place. They deserve it. They’ve made us so happy and I want them to be happy.”
For some, the loss against France failed to take the gloss off Morocco’s run to the last four where they became the first team from Africa to reach the semifinals of the World Cup.
“This is football, that’s how it works,” Fatima, a Moroccan supporter, said after the 2-0 loss on Wednesday. “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.”
Yasmina, a Qatar resident from Morocco, thinks winning third place would be “amazing and honourable”.
“We’ve already won a lot during this World Cup: pride, unity, solidarity and momentum,” she said.
“But I think the pressure is less and the stress is way smaller on Saturday. I’d love Morocco to beat Croatia but no matter what happens they are my champions.”
With the amount of football, competitions and other happenings in life, most tend to forget the losing finalists of a World Cup let alone the team that finishes third. Losing a semifinal is shattering enough but to park away the memories and prepare for one more match, which will not allow you to relive your dreams, can be demanding for the mind and the body.
For Moroccan fans though, a win on Saturday will be the year-end bonus that nobody had asked their bosses for.