Sorry, England! It's not the World Cup, but the footballers who are coming home.
England's 52-year wait for a World Cup was further extended by Croatia on Wednesday night in an exciting semifinal that seemed headed for penalty shootouts. But the Croatian footballers stepped harder on the gas to clinch the winner with only two minutes to go for the penalty decider.
In the dying minutes, the two opponents were in contrasting mood: England worn-out and Croatia reinvigorated. Winning the ball from a header, Croatian marksman Mario Mandzukic swiftly capitalised on lapses in concentration at the back. He drifted in behind an England defender before beating an otherwise rock-solid custodian Pickford with a cool, low strike into the net.
Quite understandably though, expectation was running high among England fans at home and in Russia as this youthful side of Gareth Southgate played some high-octane games on way to the semi final. 'It [World Cup] is coming home' was the wave the 66-million population of England were riding for the last three weeks.
But little did they know what fate had in store for them. A team from a 27-year-old country of a population of only 4 million burst the English bubble with a display of constantly attacking football. The score could have been 3-1 had Pickford not deflected a goal-bound jab by Mandzukic minutes before the decisive goal.
Unlike the knocked-out pre-tournament favourites, England had not come up against quality opponents till Wednesday. It was undoubtedly a high-pressure game that tested team character. Under pressure, the character of both teams came to the fore: Croatia delivered and England choked.
Coach Zlatko Dalic inspired Croatia to their first ever final in their fifth appearance in World Cup finals. And the ultimate glory is now one match away and with one team standing in the way. Croatia came out the better side in all aspects of the game Wednesday. But, on July 15, they need to do even better against the more fancied France, who knocked them out of their previous World Cup semifinal in 1998.
Morning shows the day... but not always. England took the lead only five minutes into the match from a scintillating curling free kick over the defence wall by Kieran Trippier, and held on till Ivan Perisic steered a cross into the net in the 68th minute.
Croatia just went on to lord over England after the goal with forays of attacks. England had no clue about how to counter the skills of the midfield duo of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
Happy final, Croatia!
The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star