Croatia edge Morocco for 3rd place

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AL RAYYAN, Qatar, Dec 17, (AP): Luka Modric led Croatia to third place in what was likely the midfield great’s last appearance at the World Cup. The runners-up from four years ago secured another medal by beating Morocco 2-1 in the third place match on Saturday. Mislav Orsic scored the decisive goal shortly before halftime at Khalifa International Stadium to ensure Modric finished on a winning note, if this does turn out to be his last World Cup match. At the age of 37, that seems likely, even if there are hopes he will lead his country at the 2024 European Championship. Josko Gvardiol put Croatia ahead in the seventh minute, but Achraf Dari evened the score in the ninth. It is the second time Croatia have taken third place.

Croatia players celebrate at the end of the World Cup third-place playoff soccer match between Croatia and Morocco at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar. (AP)

The team also achieved that feat in their first World Cup as an independent nation 1998. After becoming the first African team to reach the World Cup semifinals, Morocco’s tournament ended in two losses. But the team’s achievements in Qatar will be remembered for the outpouring of pride among Arab nations. The third-place match is considered by some to be a meaningless exhibition. Even Morocco coach Walid Regragui described it as a “booby prize” in the buildup. But neither team lacked motivation in a fiercely contested game between two nations that few expected to go so far.

That was underlined by a host of players needing to be substituted because of injury in the second half as Morocco pushed for an equalizer. The teams had already played out 0-0 draw in the group stage and had made to the semifinals on the back of tough defenses, with a combined six shutouts. Goals weren’t a problem this time. Perhaps that was because of the relative freedom of playing in a game with supposedly little at stake. Another factor for Morocco, at least, was the absence of three key defenders, Romain Saiss, Nayef Aguerd and Noussair Mazraoui.

The impact of those absences was felt when Croatia took the lead off Gvardiol’s diving header. In a slick move, Ivan Perisic fl icked a free kick into the middle of the penalty box and the center back did the rest. Morocco responded two minutes later when Lovro Majer inadvertently helped on Hakim Ziyech’s free kick and Dari headed in to even the score. Croatia, however, were back in front three minutes before halftime. Orsic picked up the ball on the left of the box and curled a shot toward the top corner.

Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou got a touch on the ball, but could only push it onto the post on its way into the net. Meanwhile,the Spanish league isn’t happy with FIFA’s plan for a bigger Club World Cup, and says it would do more harm than good.

“FIFA only takes into account a small group of clubs and players, when in professional football there are many professional leagues, thousands of clubs and players who do not participate in these international competitions,” the Spanish league said Saturday. “FIFA seems to forget that and only thinks of a few, without knowing the impact on all in professional football.” A day after FIFA president Gianni Infantino presented his vision of a 32- team Club World Cup for 2025, the Spanish league said this and other FIFA decisions “made unilaterally and without notice regarding the calendar with new international tournaments irreversibly damage the entire football ecosystem.”

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