Excitement reached fever-pitch levels in Croatia as the small nation counted down to its first-ever World Cup final against France on Sunday.
France, the 1998 winners, are firm favourites to win the match at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium but Croatia, led by Luka Modric on the pitch, have the players to spring a shock.
“Sons of Croatia, we are waiting for you! Come home so we can celebrate together!” read the front page of the Jutarnji List newspaper.
“There are special days in life that will be remembered forever. Today is such a day. A day when Croatia enters world sports history, and immortality.”
With a population of just over four million people, Croatia would be the smallest World Cup winners since Uruguay in 1950 if they triumph.
Croatian red-and-white chequerboard patterns are everywhere — on car hoods, shop windows, trams, and on public monuments.
Waiters, street vendors and TV presenters are wearing Croatian jerseys while shops have changed their displays to show their support.
Tens of thousands are expected to watch the match at fan zones in the capital, including on the main Jelacic square.
Despite heavy rain early Sunday, supporters began gathering in squares and streets, sheltering under cafe hoardings.
“It’s a David-and-Goliath tie. We didn’t think twice about the drive, this a historic moment for the country,” said one fan who had driven from Switzerland.
Lorenzo Abbadi, 23, an Italian dressed in Croatian colours, said he had driven nine hours from Assisi in central Italy to support the Balkan country.
“Italy weren’t in the World Cup, we love football, so I thought I’d watch the final here,” he told AFP.
Croatian newspaper front pages blazed with fervour.
“Let’s show our teeth to the French!” said Sportske Novosti
alongside a large photo of Mario Mandzukic, who scored the winner in Croatia’s 2-1 semi-final win over England.
“The present belongs to Luka Modric, the future will go to Kylian Mbappe,” said Jutarnji List, while Slobodna Dalmacija said “We are already champions whatever happens,” a view shared by many Croatians.
A church in Slavonski Brod, the hometown of Mandzukic, postponed a mass to allow the congregation to watch the final.
Many fans want the team to take revenge for Croatia’s defeat by France in the 1998 semi-final.
“It’s clear that we have revenge to take on the French after 1998,” Filip Gudelj, owner of a Swiss construction company, told AFP in Zagreb.
But for Igor Stimac, a member of the 1998 “Vatreni” (the “Fiery Ones” in Croatian) the final is not about revenge.
“In my mind there is only joy, pride, happiness. It is something magnificent, almost incredible,” Stimac, 50, told the Tportal website.
In a video posted in Facebook, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic thanked World Cup hosts Russia from a plane headed to Moscow.
“In the name of all Croatia fans I thank Russia for a warm welcome. You were great hosts. Tonight cheer for Croatia!” she said in Russian, dressed in a chequerboard jersey in front of cheering fans.
Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic urged employers to allow their workers time off on Monday to attend a “magnificent welcome homecoming party” that more than 100,000 people are expected to attend.
If Croatia win, the government is considering declaring Monday a public holiday, while the president is scheduled to formally honour coach Zlatko Dalic and the players.