Croatia has secured third place at the World Cup in Qatar after defeating tournament sensation Morocco 2-1 on Saturday.
In their sixth World Cup participation, Croatia finished on the podium for the third time, following a third place in 1998 and second in 2018.
Josko Gvardiol dived to head in his first goal of the World Cup and break the deadlock for Croatia in the seventh minute, but celebrations didn’t last long as Achraf Dari also used his head to equalize just a minute later.
But the Croatians had the final say still in the first half when Mislav Orsic pulled out a stunning curler from distance to put them ahead before the break.
“It was a great game, we still can’t measure what happened today. Only after a few days we will realize how big this victory is,” Orsic said.
“It was the most important game of my career and I’d like to dedicate it to my family and all the Croatian fans.”
Morocco coach Walid Regragui said he was “a bit disappointed” with a second consecutive defeat but that “they did everything.”
“Our players got very tired. We’re going to learn a lot from this World Cup and we know we’ll need to come back even stronger,” he said.
Morocco had a stunning campaign in Qatar, upsetting Belgium in the group stage, Spain in the last 16 and Portugal in the quarter-finals, but were held by champions France in the semi-final.
“We’re very proud to be among the four best teams in the World Cup,” Regragui said.
Croatia, meanwhile, beat pre-tournament favourites Brazil in the shoot-outs in the quarter-finals, but failed to reach the final after a defeat to Argentina.
This was the second time the teams met in Qatar after they played out a goalless draw in their Group F opener on November 23.
Morocco suffered a first scare in the fourth minute when goalkeeper Yassine Bounou almost kicked the ball into his own net as he tried to complete a pass under pressure. Luckily, the ball skipped just wide of his own post and out for a corner.
But it didn’t take long for Croatia to take the lead as Ivan Perisic flicked the ball to Gvardiol, who dived to head the ball into the net in the seventh minute.
Morocco, however, found a quick response just a minute later as Hakim Ziyech’s free-kick looped off Luka Modric and Dari headed the ball home from close range.
Croatia got close to retaking the lead with Andrej Kramaric, but his weak header was an easy save for Bounou in the 18th.
Modric also tried his luck with a long-distance strike and his effort was badly palmed by Bounou, but the keeper made amends to avoid letting the ball fall to Marko Livaja.
But Croatia finally found the net in the 42nd when Orsic fired a stunning curler from outside the box. Bounou slightly touched the ball, but it hit the post before going in.
There wasn’t much to see on the pitch during the second half as both teams looked exhausted after a hard-fought first part and coming from intense semi-final games.
There was a spark of action in the 74th when Gvardiol was set to complete his brace but went down inside the box. Croatia players and bench screamed for a penalty but nothing was given.
In response, Morocco found Youssef En-Nesyri unmarked inside the box but his effort from close-range was denied by a massive save from Dominik Livakovic in the 77th.
In the 87th, Mateo Kovacic had the chance to wrap things up as he broke free of a defender inside the box but his shot went wide of the far post.
Morocco, meanwhile, had a final effort in stoppage time and En-Nesyri almost snatched the equalizer, but his header landed on the roof of the net.
“It’s a great feeling to go home after a win in our final game. After the defeat to Argentina, it was difficult for a few days, the boys really wanted to play the final,” Croatia assistant coach Ivica Olic said.
Morocco became the first African nation to ever reach a World Cup semi-final but Regragui thinks “it’s a shame that Africa, with the size of the continent, only had five teams” in Qatar.
“In the future there will be nine countries and I’m sure that one day a team from Africa will win the World Cup,” he said referring to the new format in 2026, which will see 48 team competing at the tournament, instead of 32.
On Sunday, France and Argentina will bid to lift football’s most coveted trophy for a third time in a mouth-watering final.