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.
“We thought we were just good enough, we thought we could have done that. But we’ve fallen just a bit short. It hurts. I don’t know what else to say.”
In London, an initial wave of elation turned to heartbreak as 30,000 beer-soaked fans in Hyde Park watched Southgate’s team come up short.
Trippier gave England a dream start, curling in a free-kick from 25 yards past the despairing dive of Danijel Subasic after Dele Alli was brought down in a central position.
The goal continued the side’s astonishing success from set-pieces at the World Cup — they scored nine goals from set-pieces — the most by any team in a single tournament since 1966.
Croatia started to find their range in the second half and Perisic levelled for Croatia in the 68th minute, nipping ahead of Kyle Walker to steer home Sime Vrsaljko’s cross past a diving Jordan Pickford.
The threat from Croatia continued to grow towards the end of normal time but England held on to take the match into extra-time.
As time ticked towards penalties, Mandzukic scored the winning goal in the 109th minute, sweeping the ball low past Pickford after Perisic’s header back into the area caught the England defence on the hop.
– Solid French defence –
France reached the final for the third time in their history on Tuesday when a second-half header from Samuel Umtiti gave the 1998 champions a 1-0 victory against Belgium in Saint Petersburg.
The win sent tens of thousands of French people pouring onto the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris in scenes of joy last seen when France won the World Cup on home soil in 1998.
Despite the much-vaunted attack of teenager Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, France’s defence proved the difference as they shut down Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku and they showed they will be hard to beat on Sunday.
It was a painful defeat for Belgium, foiled at the semi-final for the second time in their history, as the clock ticks on their so-called “golden generation” of players.