Impenetrable for so long, Morocco were first forced into and then thrived as a more nuanced version of themselves before bowing out with pride at the hands of defending champions France.
Les Bleus ruthlessly applied a pin to what was a burgeoning atmosphere filled with whistles swirling around a hostile Al Bayt Stadium packed with Moroccan support.
The world champions happily teased the Atlas Lions, gently nudging what had been an defiant layer in front of Yassine Bounou’s goal. First through Ibrahima Konate, in for the ill Dayot Upamecano, and then Raphael Varane, who both observed and probed early on as Regragui’s men retreated into that familiar shell.
And Morocco were soon entirely deflated after a flash of blue darted into the half space; Jawad El Yamiq was forced to bite, leaving Antoine Griezmann spinning into the space left behind.
Chaos ensued. Morocco were shaken as the ball arrived at the feet of Kylian Mbappe, a duvet cover enough to cover five defenders, only for the ball to be funnelled into the path of Theo Hernandez at the back post, before applying a stunning volley from the narrowest of angles.
Morocco were stunned at the rarest of predicaments: a deficit. Their judgement temporarily vanished with Romain Saiss befuddled by the flight’s Konate’s long ball and hobbled by damaged hamstring. The sight of Olivier Giroud surging clear and clattering the near post alerted Regragui to quickly remove his captain.
Forced to shift their focus, Morocco soon discovered greater vigour, launching their full-backs to overlap and send crosses towards the six-yard box, quickening the tempo in midfield.
Morocco found joy targeting the half-space between Youssuf Fofana and Theo Hernandez with Achraf Hakimi running off the Monaco midfielder. But Didier Deschamps had Konate to thank with the Liverpool defender’s lightning acceleration and long limbs proving a fine combination to recover and repel this spirited Morocco side.
France were bending but not breaking and appeared ready to hit the canvas like a prize fighter weathering a barrage of shots each time Hakim Ziyech sent one of those tantalising deliveries towards the penalty spot.
Hugo Lloris was struggling to navigate his way through the traffic blocking his path and El Yamiq capitalised on the loose ball. An acrobatic effort collided with both the post and the Spurs goalkeeper’s glove. Agony for Morocco, who sensed another famous twist in this fairytale.
Buoyed, Morocco were not willing to turn back now. Instinct and pride had kicked in. Eyes widened on the pitch and mouths agasp around the world at each triangle in possession completed.
This multi-layered, yet bruised Morocco seized the moment with waves of pressure on the defending champions.
Only a glimpse of Mbappe, the track star, offered Les Bleus respite with the PSG sensation’s darts down the left flank leaving Hakimi and Sofyan Amrabat in the dust.
Denied again by Konate, relishing a situation bordering on desperate, who provided another pivotal interception. This time hooking clear Yahia Attiyat Allah’s ball to prevent Youssef En-Nesyri from converting from close-range.
There was one last scare for France; Abderrazak Hamdallah’s slalom into the area from deep was frantically cleared by Jules Kounde.
Then, the suckerpunch. Mbappe wriggled free with the ball kindly falling to grateful Randal Kolo Muani, on the pitch for a matter of seconds and only in the squad after a cruel injury to Christopher Nkunku just days before the tournament.
Finally cracked and broken by the French, the curtain came down on African football’s most famous chapter.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies