RABAT (AFP): Tens of thousands of Moroccans thronged the capital on Tuesday to welcome home their national football team, the first Arab or African squad ever to reach the semi-final of a World Cup.
The team and their coach Walid Regragui waved from an open-topped bus as they were driven from the airport and around central Rabat, accompanied by dozens of police cars and motorbikes with flashing lights and wailing sirens.
The crowd cheered and some waved flares as fireworks crackled in the sky over the seaside capital, AFP correspondents said.
“I’m so proud of our team. Who knows — maybe next time they could win the cup,” said Adam Najah, a 27-year-old waiter from the city of Meknes.
He said he had travelled over 150 kilometres (90 miles) to “experience this historic day” and “celebrate the beautiful story of Morocco at the World Cup”.
Many supporters, clad in the team’s kits and waving red flags, had waited hours to see their heroes.
“I can’t describe my joy! They made us Moroccans, Arabs and Africans proud,” said Abdeljabbar Bouroua, 54, as the bus passed through central Rabat.
Morocco finished top of a group including Croatia and Belgium, who came third at the 2018 World Cup, before knocking out Spain and Portugal to reach the last four.
The Atlas Lions lost Saturday’s third place play-off 2-1 against 2018 runners-up Croatia, but captured the imagination in Qatar.
“I would have liked to take them in my arms and kiss them,” said 19-year-old law student Leila Messour, who came to watch the team with her friends.
“They passed by quickly but we saw them — I haven’t been so happy for a long time.”
The team later headed to the royal palace, where they were received by King Mohammed VI “in recognition of the historic achievement”.
The king, alongside crown prince Moulay Hassan, handed out awards to the president of the Moroccan football federation, the team coach and the players, country’s national news agency MAP reported.
The players’ mothers also accompanied them to the palace, MAP added, saying it was in recognition of their efforts to “instil in their children the values of patriotism, sacrifice and national belonging”.