Moroccan fairy tale ends at the hands of France Pro Teachs

The brave and feisty fairy-tale march of Morocco ended at midnight on Wednesday at the hands of an efficient France. The world champions put on a no-frills exhibition of clinical football to end one of the most romantic stories in a World Cup. It was not a cruel end, for much of the match, the North African team matched the French who had to dig deep into their reservoirs of experience to see the match out.

The final moments were heart-wrenching, Moroccan players lay flat on the ground, in a fountain of tears and sweat, The Frenchmen would wrap them in an embrace of consolation. Olivier Giroud would hug Morocco’s coach Walid Regragui, with whom he has played in the French league. Kylian Mbappe would pacify Achraf Hakimi.

But it was cruel in that both goals were scored off deflections from Moroccan bodies, both from the strikes of Mbappe. Those deflections could have gone anywhere, but to their misfortune, they fell onto the route of unmanned Frenchmen. Yet, it was paradoxical, equally sadistic that the first goal originated from an uncharacteristic defensive error.

Rafael Varane swung a pass to Antoine Greizmann from the vicinity of the half-line, But could not impart sufficient power to reach him. It looked like Jamad El Yamiq had it covered but he slipped when clearing the ball, setting Griezmann through. The playmaker took a step and wafted to Mbappe, who had his first shot blocked by Sofyan Amrabat, but clung onto the rebound that he flashed goal-wards. But again another Moroccan shirt came in the way. But the ball fell onto the path of Theo Hernandez. As the ball bounced awkwardly into front of him, the left-back calmly rode the bounce, wrapped his left-foot over it and sweep-spotted the ball into the nets, past the wrong-footed Bounou. It was the first time an opposition player had breached the defence and resolve of Moroccans in this tournament.

The stadium was shrouded in momentary silence. The buoyant Moroccan supporters were shocked to stillness. But they regathered the sound as their team recovered defiantly, not freezing like the Croatians the other day. With measured aggression, they strode forward and nearly found the equaliser when Azz-Edine Ounahi struck a vicious away-swinger that Hugo Lloris had to stretch full pelt to nullify the danger. The game, as was feared when Morocco picked a three-man defence, suddenly became livelier, abuzz with a delirious rhythm. Olivier Giroud could have doubled the lead with a left-footed rocket from the outside of his feet that bent a little too much to thud onto the crossbar.

Morocco soon made a semi-tactical, semi-forced change, replacing captain and centre-back Romain Saiss, who was limping, with Selim Amallah, thus switching to a more dynamic 4-3-3, They did manage to stretch the French defence with their verve and quick passing, but they were prone to counter-attacks. And they were as France laid them bare on a couple of instances, not least when Giroud flayed a well-weighted pass from Kylian Mbappe over. The latter did not have too many shots on goal, but his presence was immense, always engaging a couple of defenders, if not more, and manufacturing space for the overlapping Hernandez. His pace rattled and panicked them, and in their endeavour to contain them, they lost their defensive shape. There was an eviscerating run just two minutes into the second half when he seared past Achraf Hakimi, his friend at PSG and Amrabat, like an aeroplane would a helicopter. They were not chasing his shadows but the shadow of his shadow, but Mbappe’s cut-back from the byline was over-hit. He though masterminded the second goal, bursting through a pair of defenders on the edge of the box, but his shot again deflected off a Moroccan, this time Abdessamad Ezzalzouli. And if fell pleasingly for Kolo Muani to blast home, which he did unerringly.

But after a phase of lull, Morocco blazed and burned towards the end of the first half, when they carved open the French defence, and eked out a couple of free-kicks in dangerous areas. But the equaliser eluded, though Youssef En-Nesyri unpacked a spectacular scissor kick that Lloris finger-tipped to the post. The defence was forced to make last-gasp saves, but they held on stodgily. Varane, even when surrounded by Moroccan shirts, would keep his cool and make that decisive touch or tackle that denied Morocco. Ibrahima Konate too put in a busy no-nonsense shift, and often there was always Griezmann, screening them, sweeping, in front of them, behind them, revelling in the love and freedom he gets when he wears the blue shirt of France.

But Morocco, creditably, did not fold up, a testament to their belief, The first-time semifinalists, though never, surrendered; they fought on, with hope and courage flowing in their game, the legion of supporters praying, clapping and singing. They hid their pain and fear, tears and doubts and swelled behind them. But it all ended when Kolo Muani multiplied the lead in the 79th minute,

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Nonetheless, Morocco has enriched the World Cup with their skills, the vibrant fans and the celebrations with their parents. Their night ended in tears and heartbreak, but they will be remembered, and their best might be yet to come. They lost to a team ingrained with the knowhow of winning championships, seizing moments and twisting the knife. Even in their defeat, they shone brightly in the pitch-dark skies of Al Bayt.

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