ZAGREB (Reuters) – More than 300,000 Croats in red and white chequered shirts and scarves poured onto the streets of the capital Zagreb on Monday to welcome home the national soccer team after their run all the way to the final at the World Cup in Russia.
Despite losing to France in Moscow on Sunday, Croatia achieved its best-ever World Cup result, surpassing the third place won 20 years ago at the World Cup in France. “They lost the final, but won the world,” was a headline in the Jutarnji List daily.
The team’s success in Russia brought evident joy to the small Balkan nation of 4 million people, and the celebration was broadcast live on national television from the moment the plane from Moscow neared Zagreb airport.
In honour of the team, the plane was escorted by two fighter jets after entering Croatian air space. Upon landing, water cannons created an arch of water that the plane taxied through, and a red carpet was rolled out for the players.
The team rode an open-topped bus towards the city centre through streets swamped with tens of thousands of cheering fans. But after a four-hour ride the bus stopped around a kilometre from the central square as it could not get through the crowds.
More than 100,000 people were waiting for hours in the square, chanting and waving welcome banners and national flags.
“Marry me, Rebic”, one of the banners told Croatian forward Ante Rebic.
“We must use this opportunity to build on it, improve our soccer infrastructure and try to be even better,” said Robert Prosinecki, a former Croatia midfielder who won the bronze medal in France in 1998, at the celebrations in central Zagreb.
The celebration was expected to continue into the night as the bus slowly moves towards the main square.
Reporting by Igor Ilic; Editing by Hugh Lawson