Jubilant Croatian fans honked their car horns and let off fireworks while England fans sobbed and looked to the future with confidence after Mario Mandzukic’s extra-time winner took Croatia to its first World Cup final.
Mandzukic’s goal in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium on Wednesday sealed Croatia’s spot in the final, surprising even some fans with the result, while dashing England fans’ once improbable dreams of a first World Cup final in more than 50 years.
“We had hoped [for this] and we believed in our team, but the feeling when we finally entered the finals cannot be compared to anything,” said Croatia fan Ivan Kecerin.
England, meanwhile, “blew our chances”, said 17-year-old Josh Ogunde after watching the 2-1 semi-final defeat with friends near Trafalgar Square in central London as the disappointed crowds streamed home.
Heartbreak for England. Pure joy for Croatia.
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 11, 2018
“I just believe we can come back another time, and I hope before I die I see England win the World Cup,” added Ogunde.
After watching their team stumble at major tournaments for decades, often falling to much smaller nations, England supporters had begun to think that 2018 might be a different story.
If they had beaten Croatia, England would have reached only their second World Cup final.
In their other appearance, in 1966, in London, they entered popular folklore by beating West Germany, an achievement that many fans have long thought they would never see again.
Guardian front page, Thursday 12 July 2018: End of the dream: England out of the World Cup pic.twitter.com/WS8tagmh4k
— The Guardian (@guardian) July 11, 2018
Croatia, a country of about 4 million people, came to a standstill as fans watched the game on screens in squares and cafes.
In capital Zagreb, more than 10,000 people gathered in the central square to watch the match despite rain.
Loud cheers rang out after each goal, fans waved the red and white national flag, and after the final whistle Croatian TV showed wild celebrations breaking out in towns and cities.
In Moscow, Croatia fans said they were taken aback by their side’s win.
“We were planning to leave, but now we have to stay until Monday,” said Sinisa Pavlek, a Croatian living in Germany as he emerged from the stadium with a broad smile on his face.
Eric Amsalem, a 48-year-old Croatian fan with his face painted in the colours of the national flag said: “It’s a small country. You see what’s happening. Everybody has come. It’s the best feeling in a long time.”
Some England fans emerged from the Luzhniki Stadium in tears and being hugged by others while jubilant Croatian supporters celebrated around them.
“It was a good game. Croatia deserved to win,” Mark Burcher, 50, said. Asked how far he thought the still young England team could progress in the next World Cup, he said: “This far, if not the final.”
“A couple of weeks ago, I would have taken this result,” said another England fan.