MOSCOW (AP) — 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.
Mario Mandzukic scored the winning goal in the 109th minute and Croatia shocked England, rallying for 2-1 victory Wednesday.
Defender Sime Vrsaljko kept the score even in extra time by heading a shot off the goal line about 10 minutes before Mandzukic scored for Croatia, which is the first team in 28 years to come from behind to win a World Cup semifinal match.
“Mentally strong team,” midfielder Ivan Rakatic said. “It’s just unbelievable to get back in the game in this way.”
The Croats will play France for the title on Sunday in its biggest sporting moment since becoming an independent nation in 1991.
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 played three straight extra-time matches — two ended in penalty kicks.
Football will not be coming home to England, and there will be no title to match the 1966 triumph at Wembley Stadium. Harry Kane & Co. will deal with the same disappointment that felled Shearer and Platt, Gazza and Wazza, Beckham and Gerrard.
Croatia’s legs at the start seemed to carry the weight of so many minutes in the knockout stage, and a pressing England went up quickly. Kevin Trippier curled in a free kick in the fifth minute.
But Croatia found energy after the break when the game opened up, making England’s missed first-half opportunities seem all-the-more significant.
Ivan Perisic tied the score in the 68th minute with his fourth goal of the tournament.
Rakitic switched the ball from left flank to right, where Vrsaljko crossed. Walker attempted to clear diving header but 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.
Four minutes later, Perisic hit Pickford’s near post.
Mandzukic scored after Walker stuck out a leg to block Josip Pivaric’s cross. The ball popped up and Perisic outjumped Tripper to head the ball behind the defense.
Mandzukic alertly reacted to the unexpected ball in the penalty area, splitting defenders John Stones and Harry Maguire, who 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.
Mandzukic was mobbed by teammates, who jumped on him in the corner and trapped photographers under them in the crush.
England went ahead with its ninth set-piece goal of the tournament, after Luca Modric tripped Dele Alli, giving England a free kick about 25 yards out in the center of the field.
Trippier struck the ball with his right foot and it rose above leaping Dejan Lovren and Mandzukic to the left of the desperate dive of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, who turned his head and watched the ball land in the upper corner.
With his first international goal, just over a year after his England debut, the 27-year-old Trippier joined David Beckham as the only English players since 1966 to score on free kicks at the World Cup. Choruses of “God Save the Queen” began in England’s end.
Kane had a chance to double the lead in the 30th minute when Subasic made a sliding save on his short-range shot and Kane’s follow-up effort from the end line hit the post and bounced off the keeper and up as the flag went up. Jesse Lingard sent an open 18-yard shot just wide in the 35th.
England had its moments to come back but could not finish its chances. Lingard failed to connect with a Kane through ball in 78th, Kane miss-hit a header off a free kick in stoppage time, and Stones’ header from a corner was cleared off the line by Vrsaljko in the 99th.
As the action went end to end, Croatia had its chances, too. Pickford rushed off his line and stuck out his right leg to block Mandzukic’s poke-in attempt of Perisic’s cross near the end of the first extra-time period.