Ivan Rakitic admitted that Croatia had been “lucky” to reach the World Cup final but added that they had “shown great commitment in each and every game”.
The inspirational effort was there again in Moscow on Sunday; unfortunately, the good fortune was not. Neither were the legs. They finally gave out.
Once again, Croatia showed why they have been the World Cup’s comeback kings but they were beaten 4-2 by the tournament’s set-piece specialists.
It was a defeat that had its origins in the cruellest of circumstances.
Just 18 minutes into a first half that they had utterly dominated, Mario Mandzukic, the hero of the last-four victory over England, became the first man to ever score an own goal in a World Cup final by flicking a free-kick that never should have been given past Danijel Subasic.
Then, Ivan Perisic went from heaven to hell in the space of 10 minutes, lashing home left-footed from just inside the area to deservedly draw Croatia level, before being harshly penalised for an involuntary handball after referee Nestor Pitana had consulted the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).
Antoine Griezmann rolled home the spot-kick to make it 2-1 to France with what was, tellingly, their only shot of any variety in an otherwise underwhelming opening 45 minutes from the favourites.
Indeed, Bleus duo Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante had been thoroughly outclassed by Luka Modric, Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic during the first half, failing to secure any kind of foothold in the game.
Their bizarre passivity meant that teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe saw little of the ball in dangerous areas. When he did, he invariably gave it away, with the winger completing just two passes before the break.
Griezmann was just as ineffective, at least in open play, but it was his dive that earned the free-kick from which he forced Mandzukic into his unfortunate own goal.
The Atletico Madrid attacker also demonstrated impressive composure in converting a penalty awarded against Perisic, even though the Inter ace’s handball appeared to be nothing more than a consequence of him failing to anticipate the ball coming all the way through to him.
Despite the undeniable feeling that this was simply not meant to be Croatia’s day, they continued to press after the interval, with Rakitic jumping on Pogba’s loss of possession in midfield to put Ante Rebic in on goal.
However, the winger was denied by an extraordinary fingertip save from Hugo Lloris and, when Pogba and Mbappe both beat a strangely motionless Subasic to put France three goals clear, the game was up.
Mandzukic took advantage of Lloris’ carelessness to reduce Croatia’s arrears but there was to be no comeback this time.
This was one game too far for the team that had played 120 minutes in each of their three previous knockout games. Nobody will ever forget what they have brought to this tournament, though.
They were the World Cup’s most united team. As Rebic told Goal, “We’ve been together for 50 days and not had the smallest incident! Believe me, I know from my clubs, that usually never happens. After a week of so many guys together, things start to crack.”
But Croatia stuck together. They just kept coming, in every single game. Three times they fell behind on their run to Moscow; three times they fought back. They did it again in Moscow but could not manage it a fifth time.
Rakitic had promised beforehand that they would leave everything out on the pitch, so that they could leave with their heads held high.
They realised that goal. They have not only made their nation proud; they have won the hearts of the footballing world with their spirit, pride and passion.
“I’ve had messages of support from Argentina, Spain, Germany, all four corners of the world,” Rakitic revealed. “It’s been fantastic.
“What really makes me happy is people said they could never imagine celebrating a goal scored as if it had been scored by their own national team.
“It goes to show we’re deserved finalists.”
They would have made for worthy winners, too, but Lady Luck had other ideas.
The dream has died but Croatia’s remarkable World Cup campaign will live on in the memories of 4.5 million people – and countless others across the globe – for many years to come.
So, thank you, Croatia, there may have been no happy ending but this has been a most beautiful fairytale.