MOSCOW — Croatia’s legs seemed heavy, burdened by the accumulated toll of consecutive penalty-kicks wins needed to get this far. England had gone ahead with a free kick just five minutes in, dominated play and appeared headed to its first World Cup final since 1966.
Then the second half started and it was as if a different Croatian team had replaced the lethargic one.
Ivan Perisic tied the score in the 68th minute , Mario Mandzukic got the go-ahead goal in the 109th and Croatia shocked England with a 2-1 victory Wednesday that advanced a nation of just over 4 million to a World Cup final against France.
“Mentally strong team,” midfielder Ivan Rakitic said. “It’s just unbelievable to get back in the game in this way.”
When the final whistle blew and they knew they were going to their first World Cup final, the Croatians ran to their jumping and cheering fans in their iconic red-and-white checkered jerseys. Croatia joined an exclusive club of 13 nations that advanced to a World Cup final, doing it in a tournament where powers Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain made early exits.
“They’ve had an incredible route to the final. They’ve shown remarkable character,” said England coach Gareth Southgate, who for now will be remembered more for a fashionable waistcoat than ending a half-century of hurt.
France, which won its only title at home in 1998, will have an extra day of rest after beating Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday.
Croatia, coming off 360 intense minutes at soccer’s highest level, faces its biggest sporting moment since becoming an independent nation in 1991.
“We started slowly, but we’ve shown our character, just as we did in the previous two knockout rounds when we were one-goal down,” Perisic said.
Fans back home in Zagreb took to the streets to celebrate, lighting flares and waving flags in a sea of exuberance.
“We are a nation of people who never give in, who are proud and who have character,” said coach Zlatko Dalic, who wore a checkered jersey to his post-match news conference. “There’s no weakness in a team that is in the final.”
England was not among the top 10 nations in ticket sales before the tournament, but the team’s progress caused gallivanting supporters to flock to Moscow.
The front of the stands behind one goal was filled with more than two dozen white banners with a red Cross of St. George, pledging support from many of the island’s clubs, from Bradford to Wolverhampton. Back home, a crowd of 30,000 was in London’s Hyde Park for a large-screen viewing, the British Beer and Pub Association predicted supporters would buy 10 million extra pints at pubs during the match, and No.1 Court at Wimbledon was less than one-third full for the men’s quarterfinal between John Isner and Milos Raonic.
Promise seemed about to be fulfilled when Kieran Trippier curled in a free kick in the fifth minute for his first international goal, above leaping Dejan Lovren and Mandzukic and past the desperate dive of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic. Choruses of “God Save the Queen” began in England’s end.
“We had a couple chances after that to get the second, give ourselves a bit more breathing room,” England captain Harry Kane said.
Football will not be coming home to England, and there will be no title to match the 1966 triumph at Wembley Stadium. Kane & Co. will deal with the same disappointment that felled Shearer and Platt, Gazza and Wazza, Beckham and Gerrard. And Southgate, whose penalty-kick failure led to England’s previous semifinal loss in a major tournament, in the 1996 European Championship semifinals.
“Impossible to say anything to them that is going to make them feel better at this point,” Southgate said after England’s fourth straight loss in a major tournament semifinal.
Croatia tied the score after Rakitic switched the ball from left flank to right, where Vrsaljko crossed. Kyle Walker attempted a diving header to clear. Perisic jumped and from behind raised his left boot over Walker’s head to poke the ball past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford from about 8 yards for his fourth World Cup goal, including two in this tournament.
Mandzukic scored after Walker stuck out a leg to block Josip Pivaric’s cross. The ball popped up, and Perisic outjumped Trippier to head the ball toward goal. Mandzukic alertly reacted to the unexpected ball in the penalty area, splitting defenders Stones and Harry Maguire, who both had taken four short steps up. The ball bounced twice, Mandzukic ran onto it and one-timed a low, left-footed shot to Pickford’s left.
“Three times 120 minutes and fresher legs today than the English team,” Lovren marveled.
Mandzukic ran to a corner and was mobbed by teammates, who jumped on him and trapped photographers under them in the crush.
Not long after, Dalic was thinking about the short recovery time before the final.
“It’s our fault. Why didn’t we score earlier?” he said. “Why didn’t we finish the job in regulation time?”
Rakitic wasn’t worried.
“We still have lots of energy in the tank,” he said.