Moscow (AFP) – Croatia reached the World Cup final for the first time in its history on Wednesday, sparking scenes of joy in Moscow and in Zagreb after Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time winner prolonged England’s decades of pain to set up a decider against France.
Luka Modric’s team fell behind in just the fifth minute to Kieran Trippier’s superb free-kick but hit back through Ivan Perisic and Mandzukic to win a tense contest 2-1 in front of 78,000 fans in the Luzhniki Stadium.
In beating Gareth Southgate’s young team, Croatia — a country of just four million people — have surpassed the achievements of the heroes of 1998, who reached the semi-finals in France.
The defeat will be difficult to digest for England, who have won many admirers for their run in Russia and must have felt they were on the verge of the final when they took the lead.
Croatia must recover quickly for Sunday’s showpiece — no easy feat after being taken to extra-time for a third consecutive match.
“It was a very difficult game, we all know what at stake, how important a semi-final is for a small country like Croatia,” said man-of-the-match Perisic.
“We started slowly but we’ve shown our character, just as we have in the previous two knockout rounds when we were one goal down in both matches. We didn’t used to be that resilient.
“Twenty years ago I was back home in Omis, my home town. I rooted for Croatia, wearing a Croatia jersey, and I could only dream of playing for my country and scoring one of the most important goals to send us to a final.”
Croatia’s players celebrated wildly in front of their fans, while in their capital Zagreb firecrackers and flares were set off and people roared with joy.
– ‘We’re gutted’ –
At the same time, the England team slumped to the ground, finding it difficult to take in the end of their World Cup dream.
“We’re gutted,” said Harry Kane, still on course to finish as the tournament’s top goalscorer with six strikes in Russia.
“It hurts, it hurts a lot. It’s going to hurt for a while of course. We can hold our heads up high. It’s been a fantastic journey. We got further than anyone else could thought we would have.
“We know we’ve done everyone proud but we wanted to go on and win it.