Triumphant homecoming for Atlas Lions  …after historic 4th place at World Cup

Tens of thou­sands of jubi­lant Moroccans welcomed their national team home on Tuesday after the players exceeded the North African nation’s wildest expectations and finished fourth at the World Cup in Qatar.

Fans packed squares and lined up along avenues and streets in and around Rabat, lighting flares, waving flags, dancing to the beat of drums and cheering as an open-top bus carrying the suit and tie-clad players drove into the capital with a heavy police escort.

Smiling players and Coach, Walid Regragui, waved, blew kisses to their ecstatic fans and snapped selfies against the back­drop of undulating crowds and

 swinging Palm Springs.

At some points along the pa­rade route, the crowds spilled from sidewalks onto a four-lane highway on which the bus travelled, slowing down the vehicle as it journeyed to the royal palace where King Mo­hammed VI was waiting to receive them to “celebrate their great and historic accomplishment.’.

As the first African or Arab team to reach the World Cup semi-finals, the Moroccan team, known as the Atlas Lions, made history, as it was one of the biggest success stories of the tournament, the first hosted by an Arab nation.

After the team beat former European colonial powers, Bel­gium, Spain and Portugal, it lost to France in the semi-finals. Its record-setting performance led to the players receiving a hero’s welcome.

“Morocco’s run in the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be remem­bered in the history books as one of the most exciting campaigns since the tournament’s inception,’’ cafe owner, Reda Ghazi, 27, told The Associated Press.

“It was the dream of every Mo­roccan to win something, especial­ly because Morocco is a country where the passion for football is overwhelming.’’

Morocco finished fourth in the competition after losing to Croatia 1-2 in the third-place play-off on Saturday, exceeding the expecta­tions of most Moroccans.

“I still can’t wrap my head around what happened in this World Cup,’’ added a student, Anour El Berkaoui, 23. “The team has now set the bar so high that we won’t be happy with anything less than winning the upcoming African Cup of Nations.’’

The Moroccan team charmed many Arab soccer fans who saw in the team a reflection of themselves. Players waved the Palestinian flag after their wins and celebrated on the field with their mothers and children.

The team also galvanised support across Africa.

“As an African team, we broke a lot of records and made the whole continent proud.’ Rabat resident Omar Zorgane­said. –AP

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