Morocco coach Walid Regragui says his players will leave Qatar proud after becoming the first African team to reach the semifinal of a World Cup, adding that he believes a team from the continent will win the tournament in the next two decades.
The Atlas Lions were defeated 2-1 by Croatia on Saturday in the third-place playoff but Regragui praised his young players saying they did everything he asked of them in the tournament, having beaten elite teams including Belgium, Portugal and Spain on their way to the last four.
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“We wanted to bring joy to our fans but we’re still happy, we’re among the four best teams in the world,” Regragui told reporters. “We provided everyone with a good show, we never gave up. Congratulations to Croatia, they deserve their third place. We are a young team that is still learning.”
Regragui said his side, who had the best defensive record in Qatar before losing 2-0 to France on Wednesday, felt the physical toll of an intense tournament after playing their seventh match.
“Sure, I am a little disappointed by this second consecutive defeat, but we did everything that we could,” Regragui said. “Physically it was difficult, our players got tired, it was very intense. We wanted to make the fans more proud than they already were, that’s it.”
Morocco finished top of the group that included Croatia and Belgium, who came third at the 2018 World Cup, before knocking out Spain and Portugal in the Round of 16 and 8, respectively.
Their run was ended in the semifinals by defending champions France, but Regragui has urged his players to back up their historic display by winning next year’s Africa Cup of Nations.
“I said to the players in the changing room, if you want to go down in history then you’re going to have to win the Africa Cup of Nations,” said Regragui. “We need to dominate our continent.”
Morocco’s campaign in Qatar also gave African football a huge morale boost after none of the five sides from the continent made it out of the group phase in Russia in 2018.
“I think we showed our strength, we showed that African football is prepared to face the top teams in the world with efficiency and playing at the highest level,” Regragui told a news conference.
“We probably will only realise what we accomplished in Qatar after four years, in the next World Cup. The pressure will also be greater, there will be expectation around us. It’s natural.
“We made a great achievement but we want to do it again. It will not be easy but that’s the objective.”
Regragui said he hoped their performance in Qatar would leave a lasting legacy for African football.
“Through experience, you get stronger and I hope we learn and grow and build in our children in Africa a football DNA that lasts,” he said. “We have now allowed children to dream, dream of being footballers and going to the World Cup. That is priceless. As for the impact in our country, we have set the bar high.”
The next World Cup in 2026, held across Canada, Mexico and the United States, will be expanded to 48 teams and Africa will have at least nine slots – four more than at present.
“With nine participants, we’re going to learn. In 15, 20 years, I’m sure an African team will win the World Cup because we’ll have learned,” said Regragui.
“We have a stage to get past. We need to build on that, with hard work and desire. This DNA is not just being built for Morocco, but for the continent.”