World Cup: Croatia explodes with joy as team reach semi-finals after penalty-shootout win over hosts Russia

Players of Croatia celebrate after the Fifa World Cup 2018 quarter final soccer match between Russia and Croatia in Sochi, on July 7, 2018.
Players of Croatia celebrate after the Fifa World Cup 2018 quarter final soccer match between Russia and Croatia in Sochi, on July 7, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ZAGREB (AFP) - Tens of thousands of Croatians poured onto the streets to celebrate victory in the "match of a generation" against World Cup hosts Russia on Saturday (July 7) after a dramatic penalty shootout that set up a semi-final against England.

The game in Sochi was deadlocked at 2-2 after extra time but Croatia held their nerve to win the shootout 4-3, with Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic scoring the decisive penalty.

"Russia has fallen! Hug, cry... Croatia is among the four best teams in the world," exclaimed the commentator from the state-run HRT television channel.

There were shouts of joy, hundreds of flares were lit and Croatian flags were waved as an estimated 15,000 fans celebrated the win for captain Luka Modric's side win in Zagreb's main square, where they had watched the match on a giant screen.

Thousands of other red-and-white-painted supporters celebrated the victory at fan zones in the capital and other cities.

"Play my Croatia, when I see you my heart is on fire!" a popular song, was heard in squares and streets throughout the country.

"Hrvatska! Hrvatska!" (Croatia) chanted the fans, while drivers blared their horns.

Football fever has ratcheted up in the country of around four million people, boosted by a thumping 3-0 group-stage win against pre-tournament favourites Argentina and a victory on penalties against Denmark to reach the quarter-finals.

Cars are decorated with red-and-white chequerboard flags and football jerseys are being sold in large numbers.

"Modric is bestselling, although (Danijel) Subasic is becoming increasingly popular," Ana Maric, 20, selling souvenirs in downtown Zagreb, told AFP.

Goalkeeper Subasic was the hero against Denmark in the last 16, making three penalty saves.

Local media earlier labelled the game the "crucial match of this generation", stressing it was a chance for Croatia to match the success of the 1998 squad, which included Davor Suker and Zvonimir Boban. That side reached the semi-finals.

Coach Zlatko Dalic said on Saturday that the "whole country is euphoric".

In Sochi, Croatia fans were massively outnumbered in a crowd of more than 40,000, but Dalic's team had one notable backer - President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.