MOSCOW • Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said his side had run out of luck after they conceded a controversial penalty awarded by the video assistant referee (VAR) in the 4-2 World Cup final defeat by France on Sunday.
With the score level at 1-1, Argentinian referee Nestor Pitana changed his initial decision and awarded a spot kick, converted by Antoine Griezmann, for a handball by Ivan Perisic after viewing television replays. Dalic defended VAR as a "good thing for football", but believes his men were victims of a system that was making its debut at the World Cup.
"I never comment on referees but, in a World Cup final, you do not give such a penalty," he said. "It in no way diminishes France's win. We were a bit unlucky. Maybe in the first six games we were favoured by luck and today we weren't.
"I have to congratulate my players. Maybe today we played our best game at these championships. We are a bit sad, but we must also be proud of what we've done."
Croatia were doubly frustrated by Pitana's decision as France's opener - a Mario Mandzukic own goal - also came from a dubious free kick.
Said Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic: "The small details went in favour of France. It is a shame because I think we were very, very good and deserved to win.
"It is a shame that they didn't review the foul (on Griezmann by Marcelo Brozovic) before the first goal and only the one that went against us. The foul for the first goal is clearly not a foul, the penalty is very, very dubious."
Still, Croatia, a nation of just a little more than four million people, punched above their weight in Russia and Dalic hopes they have been an inspiration.
"On our bus there is a slogan: 'small country with big dreams'. That's a good message to all," he added.
Heartbroken Croatian fans in Zagreb's main Jelacic square made it clear that they were proud of their team despite the result, lighting flares and setting off fireworks after the final whistle.
"Our boys gave everything on the pitch, till the last drop of energy," Kristijan Strnic, 22, said. "It was a spectacular match, the nation is grateful, we are so proud of our team, they fought like lions."
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, who watched the match with thousands of fans in a downtown fan zone, said: "These boys are world champions for us, they taught us about heart and unity.
"We lived through a fantastic and unforgettable period for the whole of Croatia during this month."
After celebrating their best World Cup finish and partying through the night, they woke up to headlines that reflected their sentiments.
"Thank you, heroes! You gave us everything!" read the Croatian sports newspaper Sportske Novosti frontpage while another daily Jutarnji List wrote: "Brave hearts - You made us proud."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE