ZAGREB, CROATIA and MOSCOW, RUSSIA (REUTERS) - After watching their soccer team lose 4-2 to France in the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday (July 15), some Croatians wept with sadness while others felt pride that their tiny nation had gone so far in the tournament.
When the final whistle blew fans who had gathered in Ban Jelacic square in the capital Zagreb to watch the match on a big screen hugged each other in commiseration.
One young woman used a red-and-white Croatian flag to wipe tears from her eyes as a female friend, also crying, put her arm around her.
Others continued waving Croatian flags and scarves through the disappointment after watching their country play in the World Cup final for the first time.
"The French proved better in decisive moments although we practically let them score the first two goals too easily. Still, it is a great achievement to play in the final and we can only be proud of what our soccer team has done in the World Cup," 59-year old Darko Ilakovac said.
At Moscow's Luzhniki stadium where the match took place, Croatian supporter Robert Zeljko, 31, was in tears during the ceremony at the end of the match to hand out the winners' medals.
"We are very sad now," said Zeljko, who was dressed in a Croatian soccer shirt. "We will be sad today and tomorrow but after some weeks we will be proud of this team." Croatia, with a population of only 4.2 million people, were not among the favourites at the start of the tournament. Their progress to the final gripped the imagination of the Balkan nation and members of the Croatian diaspora living in countries from Germany to Australia.
"For a nation of four million people it's a miracle to come to the World Cup final," said Aleksander Ceferin, the head of European soccer's governing body UEFA.
Croatia will on Monday stage a welcoming party for the soccer team in Zagreb. Thousands of Croat fans are expected to come to the main Zagreb square in the early afternoon when the players are due to arrive.
Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic appealed to employers to let staff leave work early to join the celebration. Train tickets will be 50 percent cheaper for those wishing to travel to Zagreb from other Croatian cities for the occasion.
With the nation glued to screens to watch their team's progress through the tournament, sales of television sets went up 400 percent compared to last year.
Croatia's cabinet held a session dressed in the soccer team's red-and-white chequered shirts and the most ardent fans scrambled to find flights and tickets to attend the final, 20 years after their team finished third at the 1998 World Cup in France.