Walid Regragui stepped out on to the playing surface and looked to be deciding which of his fallen Atlas Lions to move towards first. Their ruby-red bodies littered the floor of this Bedouin desert tent, the stadium’s sides billowing in and out as Moroccan voices roared and rolled down from upon high.

It was all over and this, sadly, is how dreams can end. Suddenly and without ceremony. Regragui, the remarkable coach who has led Morocco on their miraculous journey here, was being serenaded by his people. He turned and found more comfort. Not his opposite number but a more familiar face.

Olivier Giroud had been removed 65 minutes into a remarkably gripping second semi-final of Qatar’s World Cup. The champions were ahead on the scoreboard but behind almost everywhere else. The first African side to make it to the last four of this tournament weren’t going gently, weren’t going anywhere in fact. They took the blows and rose again, rampaged again and raged until the dying of the dream.

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An early goal and a late one had done for them. But in truth the toll of making all that history in getting here to the fifth-last day of the World Cup had done them in, injuries crippling Regragui’s side and his reserves so narrowly, heartbreakingly unable to find the clearest-cut chance that might have got them level before it was two.

It is Giroud and his fellow Bleus who head south to rendezvous with Argentina on Sunday, who now look to make their own bit of history and become the first team to retain a World Cup for 60 years. But first he held Regragui in his arms, the manager caressing Giroud’s neck. They spoke and from high up here in this steep place you’d never have heard them even in silence. There was none of that on this night.

But you can imagine what was said. For a start, “how the hell did we end up here, Olivier?”

A photo of Giroud and Regragui as team-mates 15 years ago at Grenoble had been doing the rounds on social media over the last few days. It fit neatly into the ‘hasn’t he come so far?’ narrative around Morocco’s manager, who only took the reins three months ago, and duly led his side to unforeseen heights.

The Herald: Olivier Giroud and Walid Regragui at Grenoble in 2008Olivier Giroud and Walid Regragui at Grenoble in 2008 (Image: Social media)

But what about the skinny, lanky lad beside him in the picture? Giroud’s red training bib billows around his frame, yet to be grown into at 21. The snap was reportedly taken during 2007 pre-season. Grenoble were a second-tier team at the time but Giroud, after just two goals in 25 games over the previous year and a half, would soon be sent out on loan to third-tier Istres, right around his 22nd birthday.

If you think that, all the way back then, Regragui was an unlikely man to be managing the first ever African World Cup semi-finalists a decade and a half later then Giroud was about as likely as the lad who took the photo to be the one leading the line against him. But his career has been a portrait of perseverance, persistence and a relentless consistency. He’d score 14 goals at Istres that year. Fifteen seasons later, he has never failed to hit double figures in a campaign.

For the first time in the knock-out stages, he didn’t find the net here, he remains on four World Cup goals, one behind Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi, the men who will dominate all of the pre-final chatter now.

Theo Hernadez and substitute Randal Kolo Muani did France’s scoring instead. But Giroud came mighty close, rattling the woodwork and put in some serious work, racking up 7km of running in the hour. As he departed on the far touchline it briefly threatened to get tetchy with Morocco’s Yahya Attia Allah. But Giroud calmed, smiled and winked.

While the importance of respecting local customs and Qatar’s more conservative attitudes was reiterated early and often here, there is only so much Big Sexiness that can be stifled. The tips of Giroud’s quiff are greying a little and it’s not doing him any harm at all, at all.

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Defences haven’t been able to contain him either. Four goals had arrived in this bountiful tournament. As France marched all the way to glory, Giroud went the entirety of Russia 2018 without scoring once, a sort of Stephane Guivarc’h on speed but without speed, nonetheless doing all the dirty work to ensure his side won it all. Now they’re 90 minutes from repeating.

In the four years since, his age 32-36 seasons, he has won added a Europa League, a Champions League and a Serie A title to his collection. He marched on the all-time French scoring record but when Karim Benzema returned from exile in 2021, he was counted out. Wrong again. Benzema fell on the eve of the tournament, Giroud returned to lead a retooled front line and broke Thierry Henry’s mark on the grandest stage.

He’s scored all types of goals here too: a killer instinct to bundle in his first against Australia before a towering back-post header; a gorgeous finish against Poland; a trademark dart into that familiar front-post alley that one Irish reporter calls Le Rue Giroud to down England.

Regragui had to find a way to stop his old training mate and a few more besides. All three of his defensive injury doubts were passed fit but none would make it as far as the start of the second half.

Captain Romain Saiss lasted 21 minutes. That was three minutes after an attempt to chase Giroud — yes really — saw him aggravate his thigh injury. What a slightly bizarre sight it was to see Giroud at 36 sprinting clear of a defensive line to meet a ball over the top. He rifled a half-volley that crashed against Bono’s upright. When he missed a great half-chance from closer range on 36 minutes it was probably because he was still in shock at winning the previous foot race, lame opponent or not.

The Herald: Randal Kolo Muani scores France's second goalRandal Kolo Muani scores France's second goal (Image: Getty)

He mostly got down to some dirty work in between times but that’s what Regragui’s reserves and last men standing were demanding of France. Their defiance in trying to claw a way back from their first tournament deficit was as wonderful to witness as any of their previous nights here, Sofyan Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi in midfield leading the pride to the very last. Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech were relentless too.

They might have had a penalty but it came and went. They might have scored a stunning bicycle kick equaliser but it came and went too, off Hugo Lloris’s post right before half time. More Lions came and went as Regragui emptied his bench and everyone in red emptied their reserves, none deeper than Amrabat’s when he somehow chased down Mbappe on the wing with an incredible recovery.

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Giroud had come and gone too as Deschamps tried to shore things up a little. The striker was watching from the bench as second French sub Kolo Muani ended the Moroccan miracle 11 minutes from time.

As his team-mates streamed out to celebrate at the full-time whistle, Giroud moved like he does most of the time these days, without haste but with purpose… to Regragui, who’ll surely be back for more. No one could have predicted they’d end up here. We’ve yet to find out how Giroud’s World Cup journey will end.