Updated at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 11, 2018.
MOSCOW — Croatia's legs seemed heavy, burdened by the accumulated toll of consecutive penalty-kick shootout wins needed to get this far. England had gone ahead with a free kick just five minutes into Wednesday's semifinal match, dominated play and appeared headed to its first World Cup final since 1966.
Then the second half started, and it was as if a different Croatian team had replaced the lethargic one.
Ivan Perisic tied the score in the 68th minute, Mario Mandzukic got the go-ahead goal in the 109th and Croatia shocked England with a 2-1 victory Wednesday that advanced a nation of just more than 4 million to Sunday's title match against France in Moscow.
"Mentally strong team," midfielder Ivan Rakitic said. "It's just unbelievable to get back in the game in this way."
When the final whistle blew and they knew they were going to their first World Cup final, the Croatians ran to their jumping and cheering fans in their iconic red-and-white checkered jerseys. Croatia joined an exclusive club of 13 nations that has advanced to the title showdown in soccer's quadrennial showcase, and it did so in the same tournament in which traditional powers Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Spain made early exits.
"They've had an incredible route to the final. They've shown remarkable character," said England coach Gareth Southgate, who for now will be remembered more for a fashionable waistcoat than ending a half-century of hurt.
France, which won its only title at home in 1998, will have an extra day of rest after beating Belgium 1-0 Tuesday.
Croatia, coming off 360 intense minutes of soccer's highest level, faces its biggest sporting moment since becoming an independent nation in 1991. Fans back home in Zagreb took to the streets to celebrate, lighting flares and waving flags in a sea of exuberance after Croatia became the first team since Argentina beat Italy in 1990 to come from behind to win a World Cup semifinal.
"We are a nation of people who never give in, who are proud and who have character," said coach Zlatko Dalic, who wore a checkered jersey to the news conference after the match. "There's no weakness in a team that is in the final."
England was not among the top 10 in ticket sales before the tournament, but the team's progress had led gallivanting supporters to flock to Moscow.
The front of the stands behind one goal was filled with more than two dozen white banners with a red Cross of St. George, pledging support from many of the island nation's clubs, from Bradford City to Wolverhampton. Back home, a crowd of 30,000 was in London's Hyde Park for a jumbo-screen viewing, the British Beer and Pub Association predicted supporters would buy 10 million extra pints at pubs during the match, and No. 1 Court at Wimbledon was less than one-third full for a men's quarterfinal between John Isner and Milos Raonic.
Promise seemed about to be fulfilled when Kieran Trippier curled in a free kick in the fifth minute for his first international goal, above leaping Dejan Lovren and Mandzukic and past the desperate dive of goalkeeper Danijel Subasic. Choruses of "God Save the Queen" began on England's end of the field.
"We had a couple chances after that to get the second (goal), give ourselves a bit more breathing room," said England captain Harry Kane, who came up short on back-to-back chances in the second half.
Croatia defender Sime Vrsaljko kept the score even nine minutes into extra time by clearing John Stones' header off a corner just in front of the goal line.
Kane scored six goals in Russia and could wind up with the Golden Boot as the tournament's leading scorer, but he and his teammates on a young roster must deal with the same disappointment that felled previous English greats such as Platt and Shearer, Gazza and Wazza, Beckham and Gerrard. Add to that group Southgate, whose penalty-kick failure led to England's previous semifinal loss in a major tournament at the 1996 European Championship semifinals.
England will face Belgium in the third-place match Saturday in St. Petersburg.
"Impossible to say anything to them that is going to make them feel better at this point," Southgate said after the team's fourth straight loss in a major semifinal.
Croatia tied the score after Rakitic switched the ball from the left flank to the right, where Vrsaljko crossed. Kyle Walker attempted a diving header to clear. Perisic jumped and, from behind, raised his left boot over Walker's head to poke the ball past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford from about eight yards out for his fourth goal in the tournament.
England had its moments to come back, but Lingard failed to connect with a Kane through ball in the 78th minute, and Kane misplayed a header off a free kick in stoppage time.
Mandzukic scored after Walker stuck out a leg to block Josip Pivaric's cross. The ball popped up, and Perisic outjumped Trippier to head the ball toward the goal. Mandzukic alertly reacted to the unexpected ball in the penalty area, splitting defenders Stones and Harry Maguire, who had taken four short steps up. The ball bounced twice, and Mandzukic ran over to it, then one-timed a low, left-footed shot to Pickford's left.
Mandzukic was mobbed by teammates, who jumped on him in the corner and trapped photographers under them in the crush.