Walid Regragui was proud despite the defeat – how could he not be?
His Morocco side were for once out for the count, the majority crumpled on the Al Bayt Stadium pitch, their World Cup final dream, the most unlikely of dreams at the onset of Qatar 2022, not to be realised.
France were the victors, the current holders holding off Morocco’s steady barrage, when they were pinned back but ultimately not pegged back.
France won through with two goals, but with 36 per cent possession; the latter-stage experts conceding to the African trailblazers, to their terrific technical play and their sheer bloody will. For Morocco, though, it wasn’t to be.
It felt just a match too much, the injuries piling up, the previous three weeks’ exertions finally taking their toll. The penalty shoot-out victory against Spain ensured a first Arab quarter-finalist on football’s grandest stage; the 1-0 triumph against Portugal granting Africa its only ever representative in the last four.
“At a World Cup this was perhaps one step too far,” Regragui admitted himself on Wednesday, the 2-0 semi-final loss still stinging. “Not in terms of quality or tactics, but physically we came up short tonight.
“We had too many players at 60 per cent or 70 per cent. With all our squad fit, we could have caused them a lot of problems.”
And that was just it. Nayef Aguerd was removed from the starting line-up minutes before kick-off because of illness; from 20 minutes in, injury deprived the team of their captain and rock Romain Saiss.
France 2 Morocco 0: Player ratings
Noussair Mazraoui, a left back at Bayern Munich no less, was unable to come out for the second half. Even Walid Cheddira, the substitute battering ram up top whose finishing has left more than a little to be desired, was unavailable following his quick-fire yellow cards in the quarters.
At this level, perhaps more than any, the finest margins matter most.
“We knew we had achieved something great already and that everyone was proud of us,” Regragui said. “We are pleased with what we have done, but felt we could have gone even further.
“Those small details are what help real champions win and we saw that tonight. I told the players I was proud of them, his majesty [King of Morocco, Mohammed VI] is proud, the Moroccan people are proud, the whole world is proud.
“We worked hard, we were honest, and we showed the values we wanted to show.”
However, Morocco’s extraordinary endeavour is not yet done. On Saturday, they face Croatia, the 2018 runners-up with whom they kicked off their 2022 campaign with a goalless draw, in a match for third place.
Victory there would supply another significant dose of pride, however difficult it will be to rally the troops a final time. Although, that is what Morocco have done this tournament, time and time again.
Beaten only once in six games – remember, they topped their group – and only by the world champions at that, they can point to the positives, of which there are plenty, once the pain of Wednesday has passed.
“We are disappointed for the Moroccan people tonight: we wanted to keep the dream alive,” Regragui said. “We knew we had achieved something great already and that everyone was proud of us.”
Yet Regragui reminded this World Cup should be a starting point; even after the dream ending had disappeared from view.
“We wanted to rewrite the history books and you can’t do that with a miracle; it takes hard work,” he said. “We have given a good account of African football and that mattered because we represent our country and our continent.
“People respected us before and maybe they will respect us even more now. We have to do even better in the future. We went further than Brazil, Spain, Germany, all top sides, but we have to show that regularly if we want Morocco to be on the world footballing map.”
He added: "We might never be as good as Brazil, France, England, but I would like us to qualify for every World Cup. We have proven that Africans can go toe-to-toe with top teams. We need to work hard to show that it is no accident.”