Zagreb, Croatia – “France might have won the World Cup but Croatia has won our hearts.”
This emotion was clearly visible in Zagreb when around half a million supporters welcomed the football team back home on Monday – that is more than one-tenth of the country’s entire population.
“Thank you, Croatia. Thank you, Zagreb. We achieved our dream,” Luka Modric, team captain and winner of the Golden Ball, said after the team’s arrival on a stage set in the city centre.
“We are not world champions, but we are runners-up. You understood that we did our best and that the boys gave their best,” said coach Zlatko Dalic while constantly being interrupted by chants of “Champions, champions”.
The city was in a festive mood even before the final. And while that mood kept fluctuating throughout the final, a sense of pride and satisfaction prevailed despite the loss.
On Monday, fans started gathering at the main square as early as 10am, aiming to find a spot where they could catch a glimpse of the team bus during the planned parade.
By noon, it was packed with people wearing red and white outfits and waving Croatian flags. Fans came from all parts of the country and some employers gave staff a day off to cheer the team on.
“Nobody in our company is working today,” Samir Burzic, 29, who came to the celebrations with his three-year-old son told Al Jazeera. “The atmosphere is just phenomenal and I wanted my son to see it, too.”
Ivka Sisic waited for eight hours in the city centre for the team to arrive. All she wanted was to wave at them and take a photo.
“This is amazing,” said Sisic. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I just had to witness it. I doubt this will happen again.
“This is our gold,” added the 51-year-old who had travelled from Switzerland.
A helicopter carrying a Croatian flag flew low, just above the city centre. Website Flightradar24 tweeted that even though France won the World Cup, there were “four times more users tracking the Croatian national team than the French team”.
The celebration was broadcast live on TV and almost every single cafe in the city had that one.
Seated in one of the cafes, two minutes from the main square, 38-year-old Tea Ostojic watched the live stream on her phone.
“There’s no place to stand in the main square. But I can see what’s happening outside and can feel the atmosphere,” said Ostojic.
At the airport, meanwhile, the players boarded the open-top bus that passed through streets that were crammed with cheering supporters.
A 40-minute ride to the city centre took six hours. Firecrackers, torches and more loud cheering greeted the team as it walked onto the stage that was prepared.
But just as it happened on the field in Moscow, it started raining just as the action finished.
For the faithful fans, however, the downpour failed to dampen the mood and the party continued. By the looks of it, the celebrations may take some time to die down.