Croatia reaches World Cup final for 1st time, beats England 2-1
MOSCOW — Croatia's legs seemed heavy, burdened by the accumulated toll of consecutive penalty-kicks wins needed to get this far. England had gone ahead with a free kick just five minutes in, dominated play and appeared headed to its first World Cup final since 1966.
Then the second half started and it was as if a different Croatian team had replaced the lethargic one.
Ivan Perisic tied the score in the 68th minute, Mario Mandzukic got the go-ahead goal in the 109th and Croatia shocked England with a 2-1 victory Wednesday that advanced a nation of just over 4 million to a World Cup final against France.
"Mentally strong team," midfielder Ivan Rakitic said. "It's just unbelievable to get back in the game in this way."
When the final whistle blew and they knew they were going to their first World Cup final, the Croatians ran to their jumping and cheering fans in their iconic red-and-white checkered jerseys. Croatia joined an exclusive club of 13 nations that has advanced to a World Cup final in a tournament where powers Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain made early exits.
"They've had an incredible route to the final. They've shown remarkable character," said England coach Gareth Southgate, who for now will be remembered more for a fashionable waistcoat than ending a half-century of hurt.
France, which won its only title at home in 1998, will have an extra day of rest after beating Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday.
Croatia, coming off 360 intense minutes of soccer's highest level, faces its biggest sporting moment since becoming an independent nation in 1991.
Fans back home in Zagreb took to the streets to celebrate, lighting flares and waving flags in a sea of exuberance.
"We are a nation of people who never give in, who are proud and who have character," said coach Zlatko Dalic, who wore a checkered jersey to his post-match news conference. "There's no weakness in a team that is in the final."
England was not among the top 10 in ticket sales before the tournament, but the team's progress caused gallivanting supporters to flock to Moscow.
The front of the stands behind one goal was filled with more than two dozen white banners with a red Cross of St. George, pledging support from many of the island's clubs, from Bradford City to Wolverhampton. Back home, a crowd of 30,000 was in London's Hyde Park for a large-screen viewing, the British Beer and Pub Association predicted supporters would buy 10 million extra pints at pubs during the match and No.1 Court at Wimbledon was less than one-third full for the men's quarterfinal match between John Isner and Milos Raonic.
Promise seemed about to be fulfilled when Kieran Trippier curled in a free kick in the fifth minute for his first international goal, above leaping Dejan Lovren and Mandzukic and past the desperate dive of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic. Choruses of "God Save the Queen" began in England's end.
"We had a couple chances after that to get the second, give ourselves a bit more breathing room," England captain Harry Kane said.
And Croatia defender Sime Vrsaljko kept the score even nine minutes into extra time by clearing John Stones' header off a corner just in front of the goal line. Croatia became the first team since Argentina beat Italy in 1990 to come from behind to win a World Cup semifinal match.