Croatia was going to be the World Cup runner’s up, not the champions, which meant that a great run was ending, and now it was time for whatever came next.
Regular life. Work. Normal bedtimes. Nights without the delirium of an underdog soccer team.
“Imagine you’re a little boy who gets a puppy — a beautiful golden retriever,” said Mihael Stanic, 28, a mechanical engineer. “And then the puppy dies two days later. That’s how I feel.”
But even in defeat, Croatians managed to summon one final celebration — their toast to a team representing the least populous country to make the finals since 1950.
As the final seconds ticked away, fans across the city — decked out in their team’s picnic tablecloth uniforms — gave a polite applause saluting their team. Then, a minute later, they tried again, and this time the feeling was deeper. A cheer turned into a roar. And as France’s players celebrated in Moscow, a chant echoed off the buildings in downtown Zagreb: “We, Croatia! We, Croatia!”
“We are still going to party all night,” said Damir Babic, 29, sharing a cafe table with Stanic. “We are second in the world.”
Here are the best 18 photos from the World Cup final
In the hours after the match, Croatians stayed outside, singing songs and making plans to return downtown on Monday, when the team was scheduled to return for a welcome ceremony that could draw 100,000. During the past few days, Zagreb’s population has swelled with Croatians who’ve come from other parts of the country and returned from abroad — sometimes after years away. People with Croatian heritage have flown into Zagreb from across the world to take part in what they say is the country’s most meaningful moment since the end of the war in 1995.
“I saw Croatian national pride globally, and it’s converging here,” said Draz Vukojevic, 51, a Canadian who left Croatia in 1973 with his parents and didn’t return until Sunday morning, when he landed after a red-eye flight from Toronto.
The team that had captivated this country, even entering Sunday, remained underdogs to win the World Cup title. France had the more decorated roster. France was a country with 16 times the population. Croatia hadn’t won in five previous matches against Les Bleus, as the French team is known. Still, Croatians had come to believe in their national team — a squad that overcame deficits in three consecutive elimination games, twice winning on penalty kicks, then eking out a win in the semifinals against England in extra time.
For the final match of the World Cup, many in Zagreb headed to a main plaza decorated with a statue of a military figure on horseback. Sunday, that statue was draped in checkerboard red-and-white, and people packed around it in all directions — standing shoulder to shoulder, doing whatever they could to get a view of the video screen. Some climbed light poles. Others staked out places on construction scaffolding. They held smoke flares and air horns — and they were just waiting for the chance to explode in celebration.
It happened once, when Ivan Perisic tied the game at 1 in the first half. But soon, France was up 4-1, on the way to a 4-2 victory, and at a bar steps away from the plaza, Stanic and his friends were trying to recapture the mood of the last month.
“Like, this is Croatian history — always so close to what we want,” said Kristina Bozic, 29, a tour guide who was at their table. “We declare independence [in 1991] and — bam, there is a war. World Cup in 1998 — it’s great, but dang, third place. And now this. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 20 years to get to the finals.”
“But we are second in the world,” Babic said. “We should be proud.”
Then Stanic said, “Let’s go to the square.”
After the loss, the square was the gathering point for all the fans who didn’t want to go home. It went on past sunset: air horns, singing, people swaying back and forth.
“This is still a big success for us,” said Bjanka Briskijukic, 29. “And it’s still a special night for us.”