MOSCOW – The rain hid Croatia’s tears.
After Luka Modric collected his Golden Ball award in a downpour, he shared an emotional embrace with Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, both wearing the country’s red-and-white checkered uniform.
Croatia knows Sunday’s 4-2 loss to France in the World Cup final was a chance that may not come again anytime soon.
“We were so close and we played the best soccer. We deserved more,” said Modric, who at 32 may have played in his last World Cup match.
Croatia’s first golden generation lost to France in the 1998 World Cup semifinals, and its second went one better. Besides Modric, goalkeeper Danijel Subasic will be 38 at the next World Cup in Qatar, midfielder Ivan Rakitic will be 34 and forward Mario Mandzukic will be 36.
“I wish we are now 24, everyone and Luka especially,” Croatia defender Dejan Lovren said. “There is a time when something needs to end.”
Among a crowd of men in dark suits on the World Cup podium, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, Grabar-Kitarovic’s team shirt showed her passion for Croatia, a country of barely four million people.
Many of those people celebrated the team’s accomplishments despite the loss, with thousands gathering in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.
The team’s entry into the World Cup final brought the country to a standstill after officials and the media described the event as the biggest in Croatia’s sports history.
“Croatia has fallen as a hero!’ proclaimed the Index news portal. “Croatia’s team has managed to unite the whole country!”
Fans in Zagreb crammed into squares and streets and were full of hope and cheers until the last moment.
As the game ended, they couldn’t hide sadness but many said they were impressed by what Croatia achieved.
“Of course I am sad. I could see them lift the trophy, but this is really fantastic,” Aleksandar Todorovic said. “We were great!”
Still, some of the players rued a missed opportunity.
“Overall, we’ve been better,” said Lovren, who was critical of the way France played. “They did it the other way. They didn’t play football. They waited for their chances and they scored. They had their own tactic and you need to respect that. They played the tournament like that every game.”
Croatia went down with the same grit that had taken it through three extra-time matches, all won after conceding the opening goal. When Ivan Perisic scored in the 28th minute after Mario Mandzukic’s own-goal had given France the lead, Croatia looked ready to do it again.
Then came a penalty, called after a video review, which Antoine Griezmann converted.
Trailing 2-1, Croatia conceded two more goals but kept fighting. Mandzukic then took advantage of a goalkeeping error to make it 4-2, becoming the first player to score for both teams in a World Cup final.
“When you want to be the best then you need to win, simple as that,” said Lovren, who lost the Champions League final with Liverpool in May. “It’s not easy to accept that. It’s something that I will carry for my life.”
At home, Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said the national team is “the first in the world for me.”
“People are happy as if we have won and that’s the way it should be,” Plenkovic added. “This is a miraculous success for Croatia and we should be very, very happy.”
The fans were particularly proud team captain Modric won the Golden Ball after being voted the best player of the World Cup.
“We have achieved so much,” 26-year-old Sofia Halinovcic said. “This is the best ever we did.”
Halinovcic contended that “we had great expectations, but we still need to process what we have done.”
Croatia is planning a huge welcome ceremony for its players on Monday that will include celebrations at the main square in Zagreb and a reception with the country’s president.