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Croatia has advanced to its first-ever World Cup final in men's soccer. The Croatian National team came from behind and upset favored England 2-to-1 in a semifinal match decided in extra time on Wednesday in Moscow.
Croatia was supposed to be a tired team coming into the match.
Its previous two games went to extra time and then emotionally draining penalty shootouts. But if anything, the grueling lead-up to the clash against England solidified Croatia's mental toughness, which served the Croats well on Wednesday.
The script that said Croatia was tired and England would take advantage, seemed to play out early. England scored just five minutes into the match when defender Kieran Trippier beautifully arced a free kick over the wall of Croatian players that nestled into the upper right corner of the Croatian goal.
Hard to believe at the time, but that would be England's only score.
The Three Lions managed their 1-0 lead for more than an hour of playing time. But then midway through the second half, Croatia struck. Defender Sime Vrsaljko lofted a pass toward England's goal. Croatian midfielder Ivan Perisic rose into the air and with an acrobatic touch off his left foot, drilled the ball into the back of the net. Croatian fans were elated; English fans fumed, claiming the goal should've been disallowed because of a high kick.
But the goal stood, and it energized the Croatian players. They became the aggressors, pushing the attack and threatening several times when England's defense seemed to relax.
The 1-1 score held as the match went into extra time. In the 109th minute, Perisic struck again. With England unable to clear the ball away from its goal, Perisic went airborne and flicked a backwards header toward his suddenly open teammate, forward Mario Mandzukic. The ball found Mandzukic in stride and he drove a left-footed shot past diving English goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
It turned out to be the winning score.
For English soccer fans used to painful World Cup exits, the semifinal loss hurt. The country still has not made it to the final since 1966, the only time that England won the tournament. But this English team won't be returning from Russia with the proverbial tail between the legs.
"We can hold our heads up high," said team Captain Harry Kane after the loss. "It's been a fantastic journey." (And one that's not quite done at this World Cup — England will play Saturday against Belgium in the third-place match)
Indeed, after getting to the tournament's final four, after reversing a horrible penalty shootout history, in its round-of-16 win over Colombia, there's a sense of optimism in England about this young, talented and appealing team. And a respect for manager Gareth Southgate that, according to at least one newspaper, knows no bounds.
England can soothe itself with realistic hopes of World Cup success in the near future.
Croatia, on the other hand, still has work to do in this tournament. And work apparently is not a problem for a team that made history Wednesday with its grit and effort and mental strength. Croatia is the first team to win three straight extra-time matches in the World Cup.
It will be the underdog against a dynamic French team in Sunday's final. But it's becoming abundantly clear that labels such as "underdog" or "tired" don't fit this Croatian team. Until proved otherwise, the only label that fits is "winner."