By RONALD BLUM
MOSCOW (AP) — 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.
Football will not be coming home to England, and there will be no title to match the 1966 triumph at Wembley Stadium. Kane & Co. will deal with the same disappointment that felled Shearer and Platt, Gazza and Wazza, Beckham and Gerrard. And Southgate, whose penalty-kick failure led to England’s previous semifinal loss in a major tournament, in the 1996 European Championship semifinals. “Impossible to say anything to them that is going to make them feel better at this point,” Southgate said after fourth straight loss in a major semifinal.
Croatia tied the score after Rakitic switched the ball from left flank to right, where Vrsaljko crossed. Kyle Walker attempted a diving header to clear. Perisic jumped and from behind raised his left boot over Walker’s head to poke the ball past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford from about 8 yards for his fourth goal in the tournament. England had its moments to come back, but Lingard failed to connect with a Kane through ball in 78th, and Kane miss-hit a header off a free kick in stoppage time. Mandzukic scored after Walker stuck out a leg to block Josip Pivaric’s cross.
The ball popped up and Perisic outjumped Trippier to head the ball toward goal. Mandzukic alertly reacted to the unexpected ball in the penalty area, splitting defenders Stones and Harry Maguire, who had taken four short steps up. The ball bounced twice, Mandzukic ran onto it and one-timed a low, left-footed shot to Pickford’s left. Mandzukic was mobbed by teammates, who jumped on him in the corner and trapped photographers under them in the crush.
No players are suspended for the final.
Croatia defender Domagoj Vida was jeered by fans whenever he touched the ball. He received a warning from FIFA for shouting “glory to Ukraine” in a video posted after Croatia beat Russia in the quarterfinals.