DOHA, Qatar — Andrej Kramaric says not so fast to those who might think the third-place match at a World Cup is meaningless.
The Croatia striker, who scored two goals in a win over Canada during the group stage, is not taking Saturday’s game at Khalifa International Stadium lightly at all because he knows his opponent won’t be, either.
“I think if you ask this question to Moroccan players, I don’t think they will look that way,” Kramaric said at a press conference Thursday. “They’re fighting for their lives because if you win a medal at a World Cup, you become an immortal hero in your country. That’s the same thing we are going to do.”
Croatia lost to France in the World Cup final four years ago in Russia and made what some thought was another shocking run to the semifinal here in Qatar. Morocco, on the other hand, made history as the first African nation to ever play in a World Cup semifinal. Croatia lost to Argentina 3-0 on Tuesday; Morocco lost to France 2-0 on Wednesday. Now the two sides, which tied 0-0 in the group stage, will meet again for third place glory
“Eight of us from [the 2018 roster in Russia] understand that feeling of winning a medal at the World Cup, and we have a lot of players who haven’t experienced that and would love to do that because it’s something that will stay with you for the rest of their life,” Kramaric said, referencing the fact that Croatia’s roster included 18 new players from four years ago.
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The knock on third-place contests — whether that’s at a World Cup or an Olympics or another major tournament — is the idea that players don’t care. If they’re not playing for the championship, why bother, right? Especially for two teams that have just gone through the emotional whirlwind of a massively stressful semifinal. It can be difficult to come down from that experience and then get up for what some may deem an insignificant prize.
Historically, third place games can be pretty fun and entertaining with lots of goals, though. The Netherlands beat Brazil 3-0 in 2014 and Germany beat Uruguay 3-2 in 2010. In 2002, Turkey beat South Korea in Korea 3-2 in what’s perhaps one of the more exciting matchups over the last two decades. Hakan Sukur scored in the first 11 seconds, the fastest World Cup goal ever, to give Turkey a 1-0 lead and Korea tied the game in the ninth minute. Both teams desperately wanted to win.
Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic said after his squad’s loss to Argentina that they need to “get back on our feet” and do everything they can to win.
“You still have to fight for third place, and it’s a very difficult situation to come back from after such a match [in the semifinal],” Dalic said. “I told our players in the dressing room that they need to keep their head up. They have to be proud of what we have achieved so far, and we did our maximum and that we need to be ready to prepare and fight for third place.
“That is what our objective is. For now, we need to psychologically come back and be ready for the match. [Playing Argentina] was not easy and the players are sad. It is really hard for them. They feel that they could have done more, but we haven’t, and we need to be ready for what awaits us in the match [on Saturday].”
It’s unclear at the moment if Luka Modric will play. The 37-year-old Croatian captain and former Ballon d’Or winner’s future with the national team is just as unknown. Dalic said after the semifinal that he hopes Modric and the other older members of the group’s “golden generation” will play through the Euros in 2024, but Modric himself has not made his plans public.
“We have had a great team and this generation will finish off their career at Euro 2024,” Dalic said. “We have the Nations League and an excellent generation who reached two semifinals.”
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Modric was substituted out of the semifinal late in the second half to a standing ovation from both Croatian and Argentina fans. If retirement is imminent, it would be reasonable to think the Real Madrid star would want to play on soccer’s grandest stage one last time.
Meanwhile, Morocco has a chance to make more history as the first African nation to finish third in a World Cup. Manager Walid Regragui said after the Atlas Lions’ loss to France that he would very likely rest a bunch of players who are nursing injuries and played much of the tournament below 100%.
“We have a lot of players injured. We’re on our last legs,” Regragui said Wednesday. “But we also want to allow some players who haven’t played very often to get out there and show what they can do. All of those squad players have made great contributions, but they haven’t had many minutes on the pitch.
“We’re going to try and make our country proud and win that third place.”
One of the many wonderful things about this Moroccan side is the culture Regragui has quickly implemented within his team. Those aforementioned players who haven’t played much that will likely play against Croatia on Saturday? It’s not like they’ve felt excluded from the team during this World Cup. In fact, Regragui has brought bench players to his “matchday minus one” news conferences before every big game. Third-string goalkeeper Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti spoke with reporters ahead of the quarterfinal match against Portugal and midfielder Ilias Chair answered questions before the semifinal against France.
Chair, who should see the field in the third-place game, was asked what it’s been like to not play much here in Qatar.
“I am in the semifinal of a World Cup,” the 25-year-old said Tuesday before Morocco played France. “As a little boy, I could have never ever dreamed of something like this. Of course, sitting on the bench is not a nice thing. But if you see what we have created as a team, you can see that no one really cares as long as the job is done at the end of the day. So when the manager gives me a chance, I will be ready, and I will give 100% for him and for my teammates and for my country.
“Me feeling something because I didn’t play? No. I don’t feel anything. I feel proud. And like I said before, I’m in a semifinal of a World Cup, and that’s a real dream come true, and hopefully it doesn’t end here.”
While Morocco’s dream of playing in a World Cup final and hoisting the trophy at the end of the tournament did end, it still has a chance to fight for more. And its faithful and passionate fan base will still come out en masse.
Third place is nothing to scoff at, and deep down, Morocco and Croatia know that and will show that Saturday in what will certainly be a battle.
“It’s going to be a very feisty match,” Dalic said.
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Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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