The Croatian players stood huddled for a brief moment on the sidelines before moving around with heavy feet, tears flowing down their cheeks, glum faces with disappointment written all over it.
It was so near yet so far. The one last effort wasn’t enough. Lady Luck had also looked the other way whenever an opportunity rose. A dream had ended suddenly after a long and hard-fought battle to make it to the final of the World Cup 2018 in Russia.
The Cup wasn’t theirs but they won hearts. Nobody expected them to reach this far but they did through their battle-hardened bunch of players.
The never-say-die spirit that saw them through difficult situations was in full display in the final but France, an own goal and a penalty defeated them.
France deservedly won the Cup. They looked like a well-oiled machinery tasked with a job. The young team, under coach Didier Deschamps, obliged.
It wasn’t easy as it seems though. When France last won the World Cup in 1998, what stood out was unity among the players.
That fell apart after that and France became a team of bloated egos and gross indiscipline.
But Deschamps took it upon him to put unity of the squad above everything else. He had problems to overcome including ethnic diversity and egos.
He was willing to sacrifice a big player to attain unity. By the time he landed in Russia, his squad looked unified and strong. The 1998 formula was successfully implemented and results became to come their way.
There were big players in the squad. Paul Pogba, Antoine Greizmann, Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappe among others. The effervescent Pogba even settled for a more sober role while Griezmann manoeuvred around a lot to feed Mbappe.
Now that the great Russian showpiece is over, there will be enough time to retrospect for many teams, particularly from Latin America and powerhouses Spain and Portugal.
The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi may not be ever seen on the world’s premier tournament again.
This World Cup meant a lot to them, It would have a great feather in their caps if their teams had progressed. But erratic play and not seizing the moment saw their team out in the middle stages.
Both players played well. But the support was found lacking. Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli came with strange choices which hurt the team. He finally got the boot from Argentina as was widely expected.
‘Fall Guy’ Neymar Jr showed glimpses of why he is the fastest footballer on Earth but too often he playacted and got caught on the wrong foot. Still he will be back for another edition if his enthusiasm remains.
While the Latin Americans had a great tournament last time in 2014, they seem to be very ponderous this time without much spark.
It was the Asian sides which showcased their brand football. Korea and Japan played beautifully and went ahead beyond their dreams.
Lowly-placed Russia lived up as good hosts and were worthy on the field too. Their fighting displays were a joy to watch and they reached the last eight is a great achievement.
Belgium, along with Croatia, were the teams of the tournament. Belgium played with great spirit and combined decisive raids with great defence. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois won the Golden Glove for his superb work in the net.
Gareth Southgate brought a young team to Russia which showed great promise. England will be pleased with their progress. Luka Modric won the Golden Boot but he will be wistful. Ultimately results count.
But the kind of welcome they got at home will be something to cherish.
However, it will be France who will go down in the history books at the winner. Allez les Bleus!