Croatia beat injury-hit Morocco 2-1 in the World Cup third-place playoff on Saturday to leave Qatar on a high after again surpassing expectations following their run to the final in 2018.
Despite the defeat, Morocco also leave with heads aloft after becoming the first African side to reach a World Cup semi-final.
Mislav Orsic’s late first-half strike was enough to settle the contest after two early goals inside the first nine minutes set the tone for a pulsating encounter, Achraf Dari cancelling out Josko Gvardiol’s opener for Croatia.
A bronze medal may have served as nothing more than consolation after both sides endured disappointment in the semi-finals, but Croatia and Morocco looked eager to make amends after losing to Argentina and France respectively.
For Croatia, it was well-deserved after dominating the early stages of the game and being clinical with opportunities while Morocco were left to rue what might have been after missing several chances.
“This is bronze with a golden glow. We won a tough game,” said Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic, who also led the nation of four million people to runners-up in Russia four years ago.
“This is a medal for the Croatian people… It’s really great that we won two medals in two tournaments, big congratulations to my players.”
There were signs of nerves from Morocco early on with goalkeeper Yassine Bounou nearly scything a clearance into his own goal in just the third minute.
Moroccan fans have turned up in massive numbers to support their team in Qatar and Saturday was no different as they jeered the Croatian players whenever they had possession, their whistles echoing inside the packed Khalifa International Stadium.
That did not deter Croatia, however, who started the game on the front foot and took the lead in the seventh minute through a cleverly worked set-piece.
A cross floated into the box found Ivan Perisic who expertly headed the ball into the mix where the masked Gvardiol bravely dived in for the header to silence the Moroccan contingent, albeit briefly.
Two minutes later, Morocco responded at the other end with a set piece of their own when a cross came off Lovro Majer’s head and looped into the box where an unmarked Dari beat the keeper with a header.
Emboldened by the equaliser, Morocco began to find chinks in the Croatian defence, with their movement and slick passing helping to create several chances.
But the African side lacked the killer instinct in front of goal, the final pass or touch was always found wanting.
Croatia duly punished them in the 42nd minute when an interception in the final third found Orsic, whose curling shot arced beautifully from a tight angle past the outstretched arm of Yassine Bounou before going in off the post.
The second half did not start as fast or feisty as the first as exhaustion after a long tournament finally seemed to have caught up with both teams, playing their seventh game in Qatar.
Croatia’s Andrej Kramaric even left the pitch in tears with what looked like a thigh injury while goal scorer Dari hobbled off having opted to continue playing after the restart despite struggling at the end of the first half.
By the 67th minute, Morocco had made all five of their substitutions. With Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd benched, Jawad El Yamiq became their fourth centre-back to bid the tournament goodbye when he came off.
“Physically it was difficult, our players got tired, it was intense,” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said.
Croatia also felt hard done by when Gvardiol looked to have been tripped in the box by Sofyan Amrabat — now playing in defence with their centre-backs injured — but the referee refused to award a penalty.
The Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim also lost control of proceedings as both Croatia and Morocco were left frustrated by his decisions not to award fouls, with players from both sides squaring up at one point.
Mateo Kovacic could have put the game to bed for Croatia in the 87th minute when through on goal but shot wide while Youssef En-Nesyri came close when he headed over in stoppage time.
But despite Morocco’s best efforts to find an equaliser, Croatia held on for victory and the bronze, matching the feat of their heroes from 1998 who also finished third.
Morocco broke new ground for Africa by reaching the final four. As Regragui promised, they still go home to a hero’s welcome.
“We wanted to please our fans. We’re still happy, we’re among the four best teams in the world,” Regragui said.
“We provided everyone with a good show, we never gave up. Congratulations to Croatia, they deserve their third place.”