England’s bid to reach a first World Cup final since 1966 came to an agonising end as they lost in extra time to Croatia in Moscow.
Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic scored the winning goal in the 109th minute of the semi-final, slotting in from Ivan Perisic’s flick-on into the area.
Gareth Southgate’s side – playing England’s first semi-final since they were beaten on a penalties by West Germany at Italia 90 – were given the perfect start through Kieran Trippier’s 20-yard free-kick after only five minutes, but Perisic’s 68th-minute equaliser sent the match into extra time.
England’s players were inconsolable at the final whistle as the dream was snatched away and they can take great pride and credit from this World Cup – but the pain was etched on their faces as well as that of manager Southgate.
Croatia, in sharp contrast, were jubilant and will now face France in the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday.
Unfancied before the competition, England defied expectations by reaching the semi-finals, but were undone by an experienced Croatia side.
Harry Kane’s golden touch deserted him when he missed a great chance to double their lead while Jesse Lingard also wasted a chance by shooting wide.
As England allowed their opportunity to slip from their grasp, Croatia grew in confidence.
England lost momentum after the break and were punished when Perisic stole in ahead of Kyle Walker for an athletic finish.
Croatia, with Luka Modric the orchestrator, had taken control as England faded, Perisic hitting the post and Jordan Pickford saving magnificently from Mandzukic, before the winger made the decisive contribution with 11 minutes of extra time left.
The 32-year-old reacted quicker than John Stones in the area to beat Pickford – and England had nothing left to give.
England’s disappointment at seeing their hopes come crashing down when they were so close to a place they have not inhabited for 52 years, will be made more acute by the sense of missed opportunity.
They controlled the first half here in Moscow and, with Croatia initially looking out of sorts after going through the physical demands of extra time and penalties in their two previous games, England will know they could have settled this game in that crucial phase.
Instead, Croatia grew in stature and by the end it was Zlatko Dalic’s side who carried the greater energy and threat while England ran out of steam.
England’s expectation had reached fever pitch and they will regret their failure to take advantage of that spell when they were in control.
There was nothing that could offer solace to Southgate and England’s players as they stood saluting their supporters at the end – but the reaction from the travelling fans was an indicator of what they achieved in Russia.
England’s fans rose as one to give them a standing ovation in a show of appreciation for their best run at a major competition since Euro 96 – and a far cry from the humiliation of failing to get out of the group stage in Brazil four years ago and the Euro 2016 elimination to minnows Iceland in the last 16.
Southgate and his players have conducted themselves superbly and offered enough to take renewed optimism into the next phase of England’s development.
England’s loss to Croatia looked like a case of one game to far for a squad who have given so much over the course of a long Premier League season and here in Russia.
It should be stressed that Croatia’s effort was magnificent given their own exertions in the last two knockout rounds – but England looked like a spent force as this game went on.
England captain Harry Kane gave it everything but the sharpness was not there, removing a crucial threat as they searched for the spark to re-ignite their World Cup ambitions.
Dele Alli also looked short of full power after a bright start, as did Jesse Lingard, and even the introduction of Marcus Rashford could not fire England up.
England looked ready to run riot in the first half, with Sterling outstanding, but they were flat from the start of the second period, allowing Croatia to get up a head of steam that in the end proved unstoppable.
Southgate must now rouse his players for the third-place play-off against Belgium in St Petersburg on Saturday – a tough task given the scale of their disappointment and the raw emotion of this bitter loss.