Morocco coach Walid Regragui insists he had no regrets after his decision to name captain Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd in his starting line-up for their World Cup semi-final loss to France.
Theo Hernandez struck early on but Morocco – the first African semi-finalists in history – more than matched their illustrious opponents before substitute Randal Kolo Muani’s first France goal secured a 2-0 win in the closing stages.
There will be subplots aplenty on Sunday as France face Argentina, Lionel Messi up against clubmate Kylian Mbappe at the forefront, but this was a night where Morocco proved their shock progression into the last four was no fluke, going toe-to-toe with the reigning champions as well as having a strong penalty claimed turned down.
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For the Morocco players and their energetic coach, this turned out to be one dream too far having already beaten Belgium, Spain and Portugal – ending the hopes of Eden Hazard, Sergio Busquets and Cristiano Ronaldo en route to a historic semi-final.
Regragui was keen to reward the players who had claimed the scalps of Belgium, Spain and Portugal but that plan backfired even before kick-off.
West Ham defender Aguerd, who had been struggling with a thigh injury, replaced by Achraf Dari after the warm-up, while Saiss limped off 20 minutes into the tie.
“Until the last minute we weren’t sure, we waited until the last minute to see if Romain could play. He is such an important player for us, our captain,” he said, admitting his squad were on their “last legs”.
“Nayef was recovering from flu and wanted to play as well, I thought it was best to play with three defenders so they didn’t have too much to run at.
“We made a lot of mistakes and then Romain had to go off and we changed to a four-man defence and actually played better.
“I have no regrets about the decision. Nayef’s absence was difficult and all of these little things meant we got off to quite a poor start, you learn from your mistakes, I do as well. If all our squad was fit we could have caused them even more problems.
“At a World Cup, this was one step too far, not in terms of quality or tactics but physically, we had too many players at 60-70 per cent.”
Regragui believes Morocco have helped the imagine of African football on a global stage and that he will now be cheering on France in Sunday’s final.
“We are going to support them (France) now,” he added.
[ Champions France see off Morocco to advance to World Cup final ]
“The whole world is proud of this Moroccan team. We showed desire, played hard and have given a good image of Morocco and of African football.
“We were representing our country and our continent. People already respected us but I think they respect us more now.
“Congratulations to France. I said before the match, they are a very good side and they were well-placed to win the game but in spite of all the injuries we had, the tiredness, we pulled out all the stops, gave them everything, caused them problems and that is already quite an achievement.
“You can’t win a World Cup with miracles, you need to win it through hard work and that is what we will do, we will keep working.”