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It Isn’t Coming Home: England Eliminated in Semis

  • Croatia's Josip Pivaric celebrates after his team advanced to the final during the semifinal match between Croatia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

  • England's Phil Jones hugs with England's Harry Kane, right, during the semifinal match between Croatia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

  • England soccer fans react after England national soccer team lost the semifinal match between Croatia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup, in Hyde Park, London, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

  • Croatia's Mario Mandzukic celebrates after his team advanced to the final during the semifinal match between Croatia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)



The Washington Post
Thursday, July 12, 2018

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 on 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.’ ”

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.

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

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 in the 68th minute.

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.

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