Croatia began preparations for the first World Cup final in their history on Thursday after they came from behind to crush England’s hopes in an enthralling contest.
The Balkan nation of just four million people will play France on Sunday after Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time winner in Wednesday’s semi-final prolonged England’s 52-year wait to reach a second World Cup final.
England roared into the lead in just the fifth minute through Kieran Trippier’s superb free-kick, but Croatia hit back through Ivan Perisic and Mandzukic to win 2-1 in front of 78,000 spectators in the Luzhniki Stadium.
In beating Gareth Southgate’s young team, Croatia have surpassed the achievements of the heroes of 1998, when they reached the semi-finals in France in their first World Cup as an independent nation.
Their players celebrated wildly in the Russian capital while in the Croatian capital Zagreb, tens of thousands of fans poured onto the streets and squares, singing, letting off flares and waving red-white-and-blue flags.
Coach Zlatko Dalic’s side were clearly exhausted but they battled through extra-time once again.
“This is fantastic,” Dalic said. “Two players played with half-a-leg, but it didn’t show. In extra-time nobody wanted to be substituted.
“This shows character and is what makes me proud. Nobody gave up,” said Dalic.
Croatia must recover quickly for Sunday’s showpiece — no easy feat after being taken to extra-time for a third consecutive match, meaning they have played the equivalent of one match more than France.
“We prepared to get to the final and we want to play it. Going to extra-time might be a problem along with the fact France have had an extra day to recover but there will be no excuses,” Dalic said.
– ‘It hurts a lot’ –
England’s players slumped onto the turf at the final whistle, barely able to believe that their hopes had been dashed after reaching a first semi-final since 1990.
“We’re gutted,” said Harry Kane, whose golden touch deserted him on Wednesday but who is still on course to finish as the tournament’s top goalscorer with six goals.
“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.”
Having led for over an hour, the defeat will be difficult for England to digest, but their young team have won many admirers in Russia.
“I can’t ask for more from the players,” said Southgate. “I think knockout football is about fine margins and when you have good spells against fine sides you need to take your chances.
“Tonight we weren’t quite there but we will learn from that. We left everything out there.”
In London, an initial wave of elation turned to heartbreak as 30,000 beer-soaked fans in Hyde Park watched their team come up short.
Around 30 million people were believed to have watched the match on TV in Britain.
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.
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 game went into strength-sapping extra-time and 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.
Prince William, the president of the Football Association, said despite the defeat England could be proud of Southgate’s team.
“I know how disappointed @england must feel right now but I couldn’t be more proud of this team and you should hold your heads high,” he tweeted.
France will start favourites for the third final in their history after they beat Belgium 1-0 in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday, sparking jubilant scenes in Paris.