ZAGREB - Croats were sad on Tuesday after the Lionel Messi-led Argentina snuffed out their World Cup hopes in a comprehensive 3-0 semi-final defeat.
But their over-riding emotion was one of pride that the tiny nation of just four million had reached the final four.
Braving sub-zero temperatures, several thousand people gathered at a fan zone in Zagreb’s main square to cheer for the “Fiery Ones” (Vatreni in Croatian) on a giant screen.
Many were dressed in the team’s chequered red-and-white jerseys under their winter coats.
The game was so significant for the country that workers removed Christmas and New Year decorations from the square to make space for the event.
Ahead of the match, expectations were high as the fans’ optimism was boosted by last Friday’s 4-2 penalty shoot-out win over Brazil. Many Croats were hoping that the squad, led by star midfielder Luka Modric, could repeat the success of 2018 and reach the World Cup final – and even go one better.
“All of Croatia is with our national team,” said Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.
“Already, what they have given us is a fascinating success by a brilliant generation.”
Viktor Gligo, a McDonald’s employee, had huge belief in the team.
“If we could beat Brazil, we can beat Argentina too,” he told AFP.
But at the half-time break, when Argentina were leading 2-0, disillusionment had set in.
Ruzica Doroc, 62, said she was “disappointed because Croatia didn’t show the same level of game as they did against Brazil”.
Then she cheered up at the thought of the third-place play-off to come, when Croatia will face the losing team from the semi-final between France and Morocco.
“But to go for the third place is already something... we are fantastic.”
High school student Mia Sragalj, 16, shared the view.
She told AFP that if Croatia lost, she would be “disappointed but also proud since we went far”.
Despite the defeat, supporters briefly celebrated in the square where they sang and lit flares.
Some fans were annoyed at the penalty awarded when goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic collided with Julian Alvarez.
“The penalty should not have been given, our goalkeeper was in the right place,” 18-year-old fan Jan Mesic said.
“But, well played Argentina, they were the better team tonight.” AFP