Croatia reached the World Cup final for the first time in their history on Wednesday, after Mario Mandzukic´s extra-time winner prolonged England´s suffering in major tournaments and 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 spectators 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.
Croatia´s players celebrated wildly in front of their supporters in Moscow while in Zagreb tens of thousands of fans poured onto the streets and squares, singing and waving red-white-and-blue flags.
Having led for over an hour, the defeat will be difficult for England to digest as their hopes of reaching a first World Cup final since 1966 were crushed, but their young team have won many admirers in Russia.
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 was 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.”
England´s players slumped to the ground at the final whistle, barely able to believe their World Cup dream was over after reaching the semi-final for the first time since 1990.
“We´re gutted,” said Harry Kane, still on course to finish as the tournament´s top goalscorer with six strikes in Russia, even though his golden touch deserted him on Wednesday.
“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.”
“I can´t ask for more from the players,” said a disappointed Southgate. “I think knockout football is about fine margins and when you have good spells against fine sides you need to take your chances.—AFP