Proud Moroccans hail World Cup team but rue defeat felt in Africa and Arab world

DOHA/RABAT, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Moroccans slumped with disappointment on Wednesday after their team's semi-final defeat to France, but were still pumped with pride for a World Cup run that spurred tears of joy across Africa and the Arab world.

As France's second goal went in, the deafening noise of Morocco's overwhelming support inside Qatar's Al-Bayt Stadium went suddenly quiet - a silence echoed not only in Rabat and Casablanca, but in Beirut, Cairo and Dakar.

A woman in green, sitting in the banked rows of supporters that had whistled, drummed and cheered through the game, sat silently, her hands clasped in front of her lips to watch the final minutes.

In the first World Cup held in an Arab country, and one already marked by upsets, Morocco won supporters far afield as the first Arab team to reach the quarter-finals and the first African team to reach the semis.

Long after the final whistle, when the victorious French team had left the pitch, Morocco's players stayed on, basking in the love of a stadium clad in their red and green colours.

"We are really proud of this team... we already made history so we can't judge them for this match," said Mohamad Alaoui, 24, a Moroccan student who said he had travelled from London to attend the World Cup and had been at every Morocco game.

"I'm so happy that I was here to see the team in the stadium and that I got to see them go so far in this World Cup," said Samira Idrissi, 34.

In Rabat, where fans had packed cafes for hours before the game, the crowd rose to applaud their team despite the defeat.

"This is the semi-final. It is already an honour and we are proud to see people from different countries root for the Moroccan team," said Taoufiq Ouchikh.

"We thank the national team for this achievement. We are proud of this team. We lost to a world Cup champion and we dominated," said Abdelilah Sair, another fan watching in the same cafe.

Afterwards, some fans braved wet weather to parade through central Rabat as car horns honked, raising red flares in the rain.

'FOOTBALL HISTORY'

In a Beirut cafe where France fans had gathered to watch the game, Morocco fan Sanaa Kassemi burst into tears as the victorious French players celebrated, but she waved the Moroccan flag in the air.

"I have a French passport but I am originally Moroccan. That's the most important thing about how I feel right now," she said.

Elsewhere in Lebanon, Palestinian refugee Ahmad Iskandar said he felt particularly proud that a team with Arab and Islamic roots had gone so far. "We are honoured that they reached the semi-finals," he said.

On Egypt's Red Sea coast, banker Ahmed Zaki, 38, said Morocco had failed to take advantage of their chances. "They deserved to lose, but with honour," he said.

In Saudi Arabia, Fahad al-Dawsari said it would inspire people in the region to dream that they might one day reach a final. "What Morocco did will encourage the Arab national teams," he added.

African fans also voiced pride in Morocco's exploits.

"We take our hats off to them for this brilliant run," said Arsene Boua, who had watched the game with friends in an Abidjan bar.

In the Cameroonian capital Yaounde, car washer Michael Fogang said he was happy despite the defeat. "I am not disappointed at all. Morocco made a lot of effort," he said in the bar where he watched the game.

In other North African states, culturally close to Morocco, their success had been particularly felt. "Thank you for making us dream," said Lamia Mssedi, a woman watching the game in Tunis.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who had been in the stadium for the game, led tributes to the defeated Moroccan side. "To our Moroccan friends: congratulations on this beautiful journey. You are making football history," he tweeted.

France, Morocco's former colonial ruler, is home to hundreds of thousands of people of Moroccan origin and some North African flags were displayed in the Champs Elysees in Paris after the game.

"I am sad and proud at the same time. I'm proud of the journey we made and sad that it stops here," said Thomas Bregas, 15, wearing a Moroccan flag, on the Champs Elysees.

Moroccan Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch lauded a team he called heroes that brought joy to Moroccans and made the country's name "resonate on every tongue during the World Cup".

Reporting by Andrew Mills and Ossian Shine in Doha, Ahmed Eljechtimi in Rabat, Maya Gebeily and Issam Abdallah in Beirut, Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Mohamed Benmansour in Riyadh, Mahmoud Mourad and Osama Khairy in Cairo, Tarek Amara in Tunis, Amindeh Blaise Atabong in Yaounde, Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan and Sybille de la Hamaide and Clotaire Achi in Paris; Writing by Angus McDowall Editing by Toby Davis

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