We don’t really understand why this match exists – especially in this of all World Cups – but it was at least a tremendous amount of fun.
It’s the most famously meaningless game at the most famously meaningful tournament, and in 2022’s bastardised version of a World Cup it’s even more perverse that it exists. It’s almost like FIFA neither know nor care that Ivan Perisic has got Brentford away in nine days’ time.
But exist it does, and if it must then credit must be given to both Croatia and Morocco for making the absolute best of it. There are two ways to approach a third-place play-off: snooty disdain (the approach, for instance, favoured by England in both 1990 and 2018) or just having a bit of fun. With two teams whose progress through the tournament was primarily attributable to a policy of being very good at defending and doing an awful lot of it, this had the potential to be absolutely shitbone awful. We didn’t even have to imagine what a bad game between these two teams would look like it, because we’ve already seen it a few weeks ago.
Within 10 minutes it was abundantly clear this game was going to be absolutely nothing like that one, with the score already 1-1 thanks to a couple of excellent set-piece goals. Croatia’s was excellent because it was a wonderful bit of training-ground fun that ended with a diving header from a centre-back, which is by definition an excellent thing. Morocco’s response was excellent because of the absolute mess Croatia made of defending it.
Again, correct of them not to bother with defending in this game. Morocco stuck to that plan, and this may admittedly have been at least in some part due to them starting the game with most of their defenders injured and ending it with all their defenders injured. Even so, Sofyan Amrabat wasn’t pirouetting players on the edge of his own box against Portugal was he? He was correct not do so then just as he was correct to do so here.
The World Cup third-place play-off is the only time that someone can utter the phrase “This football match should look more like an ice hockey match” and be met with a nod of the head rather than a punch in the face. We even had some hope that Morocco might pull the goalie and sacrifice Bono in the closing minutes. An opportunity missed there, something for everyone to think about in four years’ time.
The goal that proved to be Croatia’s winner was absurdly good, whipped in to a minuscule available space by Mislav Orsic whose commitment to banter was already established by the hat-trick he scored for Dinamo Zagreb to so spectacularly pull Spurs’ Europa League pants down a couple of seasons back.
The second half wasn’t quite as good as the first, with Morocco probably pushing things too far in their haranguing of the referee. Morocco have had a wonderful tournament, and referees’ reluctance to dish out silly red cards has been another beneficial feature but someone should probably have been sent off.
Morocco’s complaints were as baffling as they were heavy-handed, because the only notably poor decision – and it was spectacularly, hilariously, inexplicably bad – was the failure to award Gvardiol a penalty after he was blatantly tripped by Amrabat. That the officials on the field missed it was astonishing, that VAR seemingly couldn’t even be bothered to look even more so. Unless it was a subversive statement on the overall futility of this match and born of a desire to keep it interesting in the last 15 minutes, in which case fair play.
It also allowed the BBC commentary team to formulate an entirely hypothetical scenario in which Luka Modric allowed Ivan Perisic to take the non-existent penalty, and then spend a good two or three minutes showering the great man with praise for the selflessness of this act that occurred entirely in their minds. “Typical of him,” proffered Danny Mills about this event that didn’t happen.
By this point, with the commentators discussing a thing that hadn’t happened but should have in a game that had happened but shouldn’t, things had taken a severe turn for the surreal.
Croatia held on, and looked suitably happy about it. Morocco looked suitably furious. It was all very “Try telling these players/fans/coaches this game doesn’t matter!”
But it doesn’t matter, does it? Morocco’s tournament story is no less compelling for their defeat, and is there anyone at all out there who watched this and went “Oh, now I get Luka Modric! He truly is a maestro midfielder.” That Croatia have finished in the top three at half the World Cups in their history is mind-boggling, but not really any more so than reaching the semi-finals at half their World Cups.
Fun, though, wasn’t it? Definitely more fun than Brentford away.