They stood in the mixed zone wearing bronze medals and wide smiles. This was more than just a third-place victory in the World Cup for Croatia.
It was a magnificent achievement for a nation of 5 million in just its eighth year of existence and its debut in the world soccer championship. The Croats didn't win the title, but it didn't seem to matter much."I have no regrets," said Robert Prosinecki, who scored the first goal of a 2-1 victory over the Netherlands on Saturday night. "We are a small country in our first World Cup, and we came in third."
Riding a brilliant counterattack and the acrobatics of goalkeeper Drazen Ladic, Croatia had a memorable tournament. After upsetting the Dutch, star striker Davor Suker - the tournament's leading scorer with six goals - ran around Parc des Princes with a Croatian flag draped on his shoulders.
He and his teammates, arms locked, jumped up and down on the victory stand. They earned their moment of glory as the most successful outsider of France 98, with the best finish by a newcomer since Portugal was third in 1966.
"What we demonstrated is a small and perhaps unknown country is able to show with great elegance what it is capable of," coach Miroslav Blazevic said. "For us, the most important thing was winning this game. We wanted to be the third best team in the world."
Defending champion Brazil plays host France on Sunday to be the best team in the world. That's a game the Dutch felt they belong in. But after playing tournament favorite Brazil evenly for 120 minutes in the semifinals, they fell in a shootout. And they fizzled in the consolation match.
"We had so many chances and we were not able to take advantage of them," Marc Overmars said. "We made a lot of mistakes on offense."
The Netherlands played its usual attacking style, only to be foiled throughout by Ladic's saves.
In a span of a minute late in the game, he made spectacular saves on Patrick Kluivert and Clarence Seedorf to protect the lead.
"I did my best for my country and my teammates," said Ladic.
"If he is not the best keeper in the world," captain Zvonimir Boban said, "then he is one of the top three. When he puts his mind to it, he is the best. He made some great saves on the Dutch team."
The Frenchmen in the sellout crowd booed Slaven Bilic every time he touched the ball. The Croatian defender was pushed in the face by French defender Laurent Blanc in the semifinals and Blanc was ejected, meaning he will miss the final. The fans blame Bilic, who added some theatrics to the push.
But Bilic played an outstanding game, seeming to enjoy the attention.
The Dutch pushed forward at every opportunity, and the Croats displayed their superb counter-attacking skills all night. The 20-5 edge in shots at goal showed the Netherlands' superiority in possession.
On both first-half goals, Croatia used quick breaks. Suker gave a per-fect through pass to Robert Jarni in the 13th minute and Jarni faked a defender before finding Prosinecki. His right-footed shot from 10 yards found the net.
The Netherlands tied it on a solo move by Boudewijn Zenden nine minutes later. Zenden scooted from right wing to midfield and stopped on a dime to send a left-footed bullet home off goalkeeper Ladic's hands.
Ladic made two sliding kick saves on Kluivert before Suker made it 2-1. He took a pass from playmaker Boban for a 20-yard shot through the legs of defender Jaap Stam and into the far corner. Totally fooled goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar sat on the grass and could only shrug as the Croats celebrated in the 36th minute.