The dream is over but there was no sadness, just sheer pride.
Morocco have lit up this World Cup with an unexpected run to the semi-finals, where their hopes of a shock triumph were crushed by defending champions France.
Walid Regragui’s men had made history by becoming the first African and Arab nation to reach this stage of the competition, but ultimately they came up short.
Theo Hernandez’s goal after five minutes was the worst possible start for Morocco and substitute Randal Kolo Muani added a second late on as France set up a meeting with Argentina in Sunday’s final.
“We pulled out the stops and gave everything,” said Regragui. “We did cause them problems and that is quite an achievement.
“My players gave a very good image of the team, a showcase of their quality. It is difficult to take, they wanted to rewrite history books.
“You can’t win a World Cup by miracles, only by hard work – and that is what we will keep doing.”
Morocco fans ‘have been fantastic’
Morocco fans had taken over Souq Waqif in Doha earlier in the day.
This is the melting pot of Qatar’s capital city where fans from all the competing nations congregate, though a France shirt was a rare sight on this occasion.
Moroccans had travelled in their numbers and extra flights were laid on for the semi-final by national carrier Royal Air Maroc.
Some were being interviewed by various TV and radio stations from around the world, others sipped on local karak tea.
The waft of flavoured shisha tobacco filled the air as they smoked the afternoon away to settle the nerves.
The Al Bayt Stadium could have been mistaken for a home match in Casablanca, the small pocket of French fans behind the goal vastly outnumbered by their counterparts in red shirts waving their red flags.
The sheer volume of noise created by the north African side’s following was cranked up before kick-off, when those familiar piercing whistles echoed around the stadium as the France teamsheet was read out.
They were silenced just five minutes into the contest when left-back Hernandez converted, leaving supporters watching in disbelief at a shocking start – the first time Morocco had been behind at this World Cup.
The fans roused themselves and continued to sing “Dima Maghreb (forever Morocco)” as they had done throughout the tournament, but Kolo Muani delivered a final blow.
“I’ve loved this,” said former England defender Micah Richards on BBC One. “This is one of my favourite games of the World Cup.
“The crowd is brilliant and the atmosphere has been absolutely electric.”
Former England captain Alan Shearer added: “Morocco can be very, very proud of what they’ve done and achieved, and the effort that they’ve put in – not just today, but in the whole tournament.
“Their fans have had a fantastic time and really enjoyed it. Their team have just come short because of their lack of quality in the final third.”
‘We realise we made a great achievement’
The World Cup third-place play-off is a match often dubbed as the one no-one wants to be involved in.
Try telling that to Morocco.
They have already claimed victories over European heavyweights Belgium, Spain and Portugal, and beating Croatia at Khalifa International Stadium on Saturday will seal a totally unexpected third place.
Ex-Southampton winger Sofiane Boufal and Sevilla striker Youssef En-Nesyri prayed together on the pitch before kick-off, but divine intervention was absent.
Morocco have won hearts worldwide with the passion of their fans and progress on the pitch.
Post-match celebrations have gone viral, whether that be kissing their mums in the stands or dancing with them on the pitch.
But there was understandable disappointment here, a jubilant Kylian Mbappe swapped shirts and shared a warm embrace with dejected Paris St-Germain team-mate Achraf Hakimi.
Meanwhile, captain Romain Saiss – who went off injured early in the game – returned to the pitch one last time, carrying his son and surveying the scene, pondering what could have been.
Injury issues have proven extremely costly for Morocco, as they also lost West Ham defender Nayef Aguerd before kick-off, and Bayern Munich full-back Noussair Mazraoui was taken off at half-time.
In the end, players bowed down for sujood (prostration) in front of their faithful, slowly applauding them before exiting the stage.
“Saturday is what they call a losers’ game,” Morocco fan Mohammed, from near Rabat, told BBC Sport. “A third-place finish would mean the world to us because we have achieved the unexpected.
“There are no tears today, because we are so proud of what these players have done for the fans and the country.”
Regragui added: “Maybe it was one step too far. Physically, we came up short and had too many players at 60 or 70% fitness – and have been for a few games now.
“We realise we made a great achievement. We saw the pictures in the media, television and social media and saw everyone was proud of us. We wanted to keep the Moroccan people’s dream alive and we are disappointed.
“We felt we could have gone even further, but on these small details the true champions win.
“We have given a good image of our country and African football. We were representing our continent. People always respected us, but maybe they will respect us more now.”
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