World Cup 2018: Croatia fans ecstatic after ousting England

By Bethany Bell
BBC News, Zagreb

image sourceAFP/Getty Images
image captionCroatia will meet France in the World Cup final after sending England out of the competition

Croatia is jubilant.

Right before the end of the game, a young man in a red and white Croatia football shirt rushed up to me at the fan zone in central Zagreb.

"If we win, I'm going to jump into that fountain," he said.

Seconds later, as huge victory cheers filled the square, he plunged in, followed by dozens of others, shouting and splashing with joy.

People set off fireworks and flares.

"England is going home - and we are going to the final!" shouted a girl with red and white checks painted on her face. "We are such a small country, but we can play football!"

image sourceReuters
image captionEcstatic Croatia fans cool their passions in a fountain in central Zagreb
image sourceAFP/Getty Images
image captionHuge crowds watched the game on a big screen in Zagreb's main square

"Nobody expected us to win," Marko cried. "The English media all week were making fun of us, saying that we don't have a chance, but it showed in the field that quality reigned supreme.

"In every single game, they play with 100% of their hearts. It's everything to us."

This is Croatia's moment. It's a country of just over 4 million people, that has produced a team of brilliant players.

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image captionCroatia's President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic (left) offered a Croatia football shirt to British PM Theresa May at the Nato summit in Brussels

As he drank beer, Daniel told me it was very significant for his country.

"Croatians are very proud. The last time we got to the semi-finals in a World Cup was in 1998, just after the war and independence. We show we can win. It's more important for a small country."

Another fan was more philosophical. "It's an escape for people," he said. "There are no jobs, no money. The politicians are lining their pockets. But tonight people are happy. It makes them forget their problems for a short time."

image captionOne fan, Daniel, told the BBC the victory felt "more important for a small country"

The players have been feted as national heroes.

When the team qualified for the quarter-finals, the Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic paid them a visit in their dressing room, stepping over their kit, to hug several of the players in various states of undress.

She later released video footage of her, resplendent in a football shirt, jumping up and down with the players.

image sourceFacebook/Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic
image captionCroatia's president celebrates quarter final success in the team dressing room

Croatia's performance in the World Cup has helped shift the spotlight from the dark cloud of corruption scandals surrounding football in this country and murky management within the Croatian football federation.

Croatia has been repeatedly punished by Fifa and Uefa over unruly fans known for throwing flares at matches and chanting fascist slogans.

And in March, Croatia's captain, Luka Modric, was charged with perjury.

Prosecutors say the Real Madrid midfielder gave false testimony during the trial of one of the most powerful figures in Croatian football, the former head of Dinamo Zagreb, Zdravko Mamic, in a multi-million-euro corruption case. Mamic, who was sentenced to six and a half years in prison, is currently in hiding in Bosnia.

Modric's lawyer told the BBC that he had done nothing wrong and hoped he would not face trial for perjury after the World Cup.

Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren is also being investigated but has not been charged.

image sourceAFP/Getty Images
image captionCroatia midfielder Luka Modric (centre) was charged with perjury in June

The more the team wins, the more the fans are likely to forgive - but the problems remain.

Back at the beer tent, Daniel told me his country would have to deal with the corruption issues, "but not today."

"After this, we must speak about the problems, but today it is more important to talk about Croatia."

"It's incredible," one of the fans shouted. "I really can't believe it. We're in the finals. It's coming to our home!"

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