World Cup: What’s the secret to Croatia’s footballing success?

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On the morning after the night before, eyes learning to refocus again after giddily celebrating Croatia reaching a first World Cup final, Anita Sambol jumped into her car and made the 60 kilometer journey to Zagreb.

She needed a passport. Urgently. She, like her country’s footballers, was on her way to Moscow for the World Cup final, to be a witness to a momentous moment in her country’s history.

“It’s been really crazy, crazy, crazy here during the World Cup,” she says, speaking to CNN Sport from her Croatian home. “Wednesday it all went on a completely other level. It was just pure happiness, pure celebrations.”

It was on floodlit Wednesday night in the Russian capital, of course, that Croatia’s footballers dug into their infinite reserves of energy to crush English dreams in a gripping World Cup semifinal.

By beating England’s youthful side 2-1 in extra-time, Croatia had emphatically answered those who doubted its staying power following consecutive 120-minute matches and penalties in the last 16 and quarterfinals.

Its victorious team sang on the team bus, chanted outside its hotel, while in Zagreb thousands gathered in the capital’s center, filling the sky with plumes of red smoke. The following day, Croatia’s government all wore the country’s national football shirts to its weekly meeting.

“This is the first time it’s happened to us ever. Not a lot of people had high expectations for this World Cup, some weren’t even sure we’d get through the group stages because the group was not easy,” adds Sambol.

“There have been parties in every single place in Croatia, either watching together in city squares or in pubs and after the match ended the way it ended there were fireworks, firecrackers, cars driving around honking all the time, traffic stopped. It was amazing.”

A country of four million — one-13th the size of England’s — had overcome demographic and economic odds to reach football’s pinnacle.

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