MOSCOW — The year Croatia achieved independence, England was 25 years removed from its lone appearance in a World Cup final. The pain and disappointment left by quadrennial shortcomings for the founders of modern soccer — as well as missteps in other major competitions — were still in the early stages.

Almost three decades later, on Wednesday night in the Russian capital, a young nation with 4.3 million citizens and 23 superb soccer players forged its mark and extended England’s misery to 52 years since its 1966 championship.

With a 2-1 victory that required a 30-minute extra period, Croatia became the smallest country since Uruguay in 1950 to advance to the World Cup final. France awaits Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium.

“For Croatian football and for Croatia as a country, this is history being written,” Coach Zlatko Dalic said. “We have our heart, we have our pride, we have our players.”

And they had the perseverance to prevail in a third consecutive match in which they fell behind and couldn’t settle things in regulation time. The previous two, against Denmark and Russia, were decided on penalty kicks. Those three extra sessions have added up to a complete 90-minute game.

“What our players did today, the strength they’ve shown, the stamina, the energy levels,” Dalic said. “I wanted to substitute, but no one wanted to be subbed. Everybody kept saying: ‘I’m ready. I can run on.’ ”


Want smart analysis, opinions, viewing guides and more from the World Cup? Sign up for our month-long newsletter. Every match day through the final July 15.


The Three Lions had gone ahead in the early moments, but Croatia drew even midway through the second half. And in the 19th of 30 additional minutes, Mario Mandzukic smashed an angled, six-yard shot past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

Ivan Perisic, who had scored the equalizer in the 68th minute, made it possible by winning a header at the top corner of the penalty area. Mandzukic beat two defenders and met the ball in stride for left-footed glory.


Mario Mandzukic scores the game-winning goal, putting Croatia in its first World Cup final. (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The celebration spilled into photographers’ row, burying one poor cameraman in a mass of blue jerseys.

At the final whistle, while English players slumped to their bellies and buttocks, the Croatia players celebrated with their checkerboard-adorned supporters.

“We all know what was at stake, how important a semifinal is for a small country such as Croatia,” Perisic said. “We started slowly, but we showed our character. We didn’t used to be this resilient.”

Despite its young age, Croatia has a rich soccer history, having kept the talents and traditions from its days as part of Yugoslavia. In 1998, the Croatians advanced to the World Cup semifinals in their first appearance as an independent nation before losing to eventual champion France, the host nation.

“This has been the topic of discussion for 20 years,” Dalic said.

For the Three Lions, it has now been 13 World Cups without reaching the final. (And in that time, they’ve gone to the semifinals just twice.) Their record in the other major competition, the European Championship, has been even worse: no finals since the event began in 1960.

But unlike almost all other defeats, this young English team overachieved and captured the imagination of a country thirsting for sporting heroes.

“If we’ve brought joy back home, which I know we have, then it’s been worthwhile,” Coach Gareth Southgate said. “We should be proud of that, no question. We’re hugely disappointed we couldn’t take the country one step further.”

Things began with great promise: a goal in the fifth minute.

Kieran Trippier has drawn comparisons to David Beckham for his ability to cross the ball with precision accuracy. His right foot is also weaponized for set pieces and, with a free kick dead-on from 25 yards, the Tottenham Hotspur player scored his first international goal.

Two steps and … thump! The ball took flight, cleared the head of a leaping pillar in the defensive wall and steamed toward the target. Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic prepared to launch, then realizing neither man nor beast was going to intervene, he aborted.

Teammates piled on Trippier along the sideline. Southgate, looking dapper as ever in his trendsetting, form-fitting, blue waistcoat, pumped his arms. All over England, on Waistcoat Wednesday, the masses celebrated.

England just seemed so relaxed and prepared for every situation, not flustered in the slightest by the momentum occasion.

England seemed fresher physically and mentally. There was a calmness to its game and a body language that seemed to say it was in control.

The Three Lions threatened again and again but couldn’t extend the lead.

“When you are in charge of the game as we were and you have the chances we had,” Southgate said, “you probably need to take a second goal.”

Croatia set the terms in the second half and pulled level. Sime Vrsaljko swung the ball from the right wing into the penalty area. Perisic was on the back side with two defenders between him and the ball.

Trippier let Perisic slip by. Kyle Walker prepared to head the ball from danger, but as it approached, Perisic swung his raised left leg in front of the defender’s cranium and stabbed in a leaping volley from six yards.

Four minutes later, with the Croatians buzzing and England not knowing how to stop them, Perisic beat Pickford with an angled blast that kissed the base of the far post.

Poor decisions and touches bedeviled England, which was fortunate to remain level with a ravenous foe.

Harry Kane could have won it for England in stoppage time but failed to make solid contact with a clear header off a set piece.

In the first 15 minutes of extra time, Vrsaljko rescued Croatia with a goal-line clearance on John Stones’s header, and Pickford deflected Mandzukic’s redirect an instant before they collided.

Mandzukic then found the target, sending Croatia to the final and sending England home in tears again.

Steven Goff

***

In-game updates

Croatia substitution: Bidelj for Modric

Milan Bidelj replaced Luka Modric in the 119th minute. Both teams are out of substitutions.

Trippier helped off

England’s Kieran Trippier was helped off the field due to injury in the 116th minute. With England out of substitutions, the Three Lions were forced to play with 10 men.

Croatia substitution: Corluka for Mandzukic

Mario Mandzukic, who scored what could prove to be the game-winning goal, was replaced by Vedran Corluka in the 115th minute.

England substitution: Vardy for Walker

Jamie Vardy came on for Kyle Walker in the 112th minute. England is down a goal and out of substitutions.

Goal!

Mario Mandzukic put a left-footed shot past England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and inside the far post in the 109th minute to give Croatia a 2-1 lead.

Gutsy save by Jordan Pickford keeps things level

England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford came off his line to make his best save of the game on Mario Mandzukic during stoppage time at the end of the first period of extra time. The score remained 1-1 entering the second 15 minutes of extra time.

Croatia substitution: Kramaric for Rebic

Andrej Kramaric came on for Ante Rebic in the 101st minute, leaving Croatia with two substitutions.

Head save for Croatia

England’s John Stones headed a corner kick on net in 99th minute, but Croatia’s Sime Vrsaljko helped bail out goalkeeper Danijel Subasic by heading the attempt out of harm’s way. The score remained 1-1.

England substitution: Dier for Henderson

Eric Dier came on for Jordan Henderson in the 97th minute, leaving England with one substitution.

Yellow card to Croatia

Croatia’s Ante Rebic was shown a yellow card in the 96th minute.

Croatia substitution: Pivaric for Strinic

Croatia used its first substitution in the 95th minute, when Josip Pivaric came on for Ivan Strinic.

England substitution: Rose for Young

Danny Rose came on for Ashley Young at the start of extra time.

End of regulation: England 1, Croatia 1

Ninety-plus minutes wasn’t enough time to decide France’s opponent in Sunday’s World Cup final. England and Croatia are headed to extra time tied 1-1. This is Croatia’s third straight match to go to extra time, while England went to extra time against Colombia in the round of 16.

England can’t capitalize on set piece

England was awarded a free kick during stoppage time after a foul on Ivan Rakitic. Kieran Trippier, who scored England’s only goal on a free kick in the first half, sent a ball into the box, but Harry Kane’s header bounced wide of the left post.

More chances for Croatia

Croatia has continued to apply pressure in the second half. In the 83rd minute, Mario Mandzukic settled a cross with his chest and drilled a shot on goal that Jordan Pickford punched away. A minute later, Ivan Perisic put a shot over the crossbar after Pickford left his line to make a challenge on a cross. Croatia is looking to join Argentina (1990) as the only teams in World Cup history to advance to the final after trailing at halftime in the semifinal.

England substitution: Rashford for Sterling

Marcus Rashford came on for Raheem Sterling in the 74th minute. It was the first substitution of the match for either side.

Perisic hits the post

Less than four minutes after scoring the equalizer, Croatia’s Ivan Perisic hit the right post from the left side of the box. Ante Rebic’s shot off the deflection bounced directly to England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Croatia has dominated the chances since halftime.

Goal!

Croatia’s Ivan Perisic out-jumped Kyle Walker and tied the game, 1-1, in the 68th minute by one-timing Sime Vrsaljko’s long cross out of midair and into the back of the net with his left foot. Eight of Croatia’s 11 goals in this World Cup have come after halftime.

A chance for Croatia

Croatia had a good look from close range in the 65th minute, a rocket by Ivan Perisic that deflected off a defender and caught England right back Kyle Walker in the groin.

Yellow cards come out

Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic was issued a yellow card in the 48th minute. Six minutes later, England’s Kyle Walker was shown a yellow card after some pushing and shoving.

Halftime update: England 1, Croatia 0

Kieran Trippier’s set piece strike in the fifth minute was the only goal of the first half. According to ESPN Stats and Information, it was the earliest goal in a World Cup semifinal in 60 years. The goal set off a wild celebration among England fans back in London.

And it also has the Three Lions about 45 minutes away from clinching their first trip to a World Cup final since 1966.

Lingard shoots wide

Shots were 4-4 after 40 minutes, but the better chances belonged to England. Jesse Lingard missed an opportunity to give the Three Lions a 2-0 advantage in the 36th minute when his shot from outside the box rolled wide of the right post.

Croatia puts a shot on goal

In the 31st minute, England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford made his first save on a left-footed shot by Croatia’s Ante Rebic from outside the box.

Lovren avoids a yellow card

Croatia’s Dejan Lovren was called for a foul, but avoided a booking, after a hard tackle on England’s Harry Kane in the 21st minute. A minute later, an England chance in the box was nullified by an offside.

Another chance for England

England made a bid to add their lead in the 14th minute, but Harry Maguire’s header off a corner kick bounced wide of the net.

Goal!

Kieran Trippier gave England a 1-0 lead with a perfectly struck free kick from just outside the box in the fifth minute. Talk about a dream start for the Three Lions. Trippier’s goal was England’s ninth on a set piece in this tournament, breaking a record shared with Portugal (1966) for most in a single World Cup.

Starting lineups announced

Team profiles

England

  • Previous results: In group play, defeated Tunisia, 2-1; defeated Panama, 6-1; lost to Belgium, 1-0. Defeated Colombia in the round of 16 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw. Defeated Sweden in the quarterfinals, 2-0.
  • Best World Cup finish: Champion, 1966.
  • Notable: England’s eight goals on set pieces are tied with Portugal (1966) for the most in a single World Cup tournament. England defeated Portugal in the semifinals en route to its only World Cup title that year.
  • FIFA world ranking: 12. Elo world ranking: 5.

Croatia

  • Previous results: In group play, defeated Nigeria, 2-0; defeated Argentina, 3-0; defeated Iceland, 2-1. Defeated Denmark in the round of 16 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw. Defeated Russia in the quarterfinals on penalty kicks after a 2-2 draw.
  • Best World Cup finish: Third place, 1998.
  • Notable: Croatia’s only previous trip to the World Cup semifinals ended with a 2-1 loss to host France in 1998.
  • FIFA world ranking: 20. Elo world ranking: 9.

Mighty England, a World Cup Cinderella? The shoe fits for several of its players.

Wimbledon will relax cellphone rules for England-Croatia match

‘It’s coming home’: The story behind England’s World Cup anthem

Where to watch the World Cup semifinals in the D.C. area

England’s unexpected rise reaches World Cup semifinals, and its fans’ chorus grows louder

Russia is knocked out of World Cup by Croatia, after showing fight no one imagined