Croatia’s third top-three finish at the World Cup has a “golden layer”, said boss Zlatko Dalic after his side clinched a play-off victory over history-makers Morocco.
Dalic’s side were runners-up to France four years ago and confirmed their status as one of the elite footballing nations with another third-place finish to go alongside that secured in their competition debut in 1998.
In a frantic opening, Josko Gvardiol gave Croatia the lead on seven minutes with a superb diving header but Achraf Dari levelled just two minutes later by nodding home from close range.
Mislav Orsic curled in a sumptuous second for Croatia via the post three minutes before half-time and struck a thumping, deflected drive into the side-netting after the break.
The second half could not match the energy of a thrilling opening period and Morocco failed to find an equaliser as a fruitful campaign ended in back-to-back defeats.
Dalic said: “We won the bronze medal and it has a golden layer, it is like we have won the gold medal tonight.
“Fighting for the third place play-off and losing would have been a disaster. This is the end of a cycle, end of a journey. My players spared no efforts and these are what we work for.”
It’s the game no team wants to be involved in but in the end Croatia, a country with a population under four million, will be highly satisfied with another outstanding showing on the global stage.
At the heart of the team is influential skipper Luka Modric, running the show once again at the age of 37 on his 162nd cap, though this could well be his final appearance at a World Cup.
“This is the last World Cup for some of my players due to their age,” said Dalic. “But we have young players in our team and there is a great hope for Croatia. We have many young players on the bench. The older players instil confidence in them.
“Croatia has nothing to fear for the future. Is this the end of an era? I believe not, we have the Nations League and European Championship in 2024. I believe Croatia has a fascinating future.”
Croatia’s opener was straight off the training ground, Ivan Perisic flicking on a free-kick that was latched on to by Gvardiol’s brilliant finish, flying through the air to head into the far corner.
But Morocco levelled immediately courtesy of Dari, a looping ball falling into his path to convert from a few yards out and spark rowdy celebrations in the stands.
Teenage midfielder Bilal El Khannouss, making his Morocco debut at 18, showed confident touches but was culpable for Croatia’s second goal, giving the ball away deep in his own half and ultimately handing over victory.
Marko Livaja laid the ball off for Orsic, who curled a glorious first time finish past the despairing reach of goalkeeper Yassine Bounou and into the net via the post.
Sevilla striker Youssef En-Nesyri had Morocco’s best chances for an equaliser, forcing knockout round penalty hero Dominik Livakovic into a sharp save from close range and heading on to the roof of the net in injury time.
Walid Regragui’s men made history by becoming the first African side to reach the semi-finals and their passionate players and supporters have lit up this tournament.
Their following sang and banged their drum for the entirety of this game and, despite being beaten in the last four by defending champions France and here by Croatia, they will look back on their achievements at this tournament with fond memories.
Regragui said: “The doubts were in the minds of everyone before this tournament but we have gone further than expected and it is not enough. That needs to set the example for the future.
“Something that has touched me is when I see the pictures of children because football makes people dream. We have allowed children to dream, we have kept those dreams alive.
“Children in Morocco and around the world dream of winning the World Cup and that means more to me than winning any game at the World Cup.
“We have made a fantastic achievement but we want to do that again. If we can keep reaching the semi-final or quarter final regularly, one day we will win the World Cup.”