Russia’s hopes of a home-country World Cup championship have ended with a loss to Croatia and plenty of tears, but the country's leaders, citizens, and even a prominent opposition activist expressed gratitude to the overachieving soccer squad.
President Vladimir Putin early on July 8 said he was "proud" of the team despite its losing to the Croats 4-3 in Sochi on penalty kicks after ending extra-time play in a 2-2 draw late on July 7.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by Interfax as saying that Putin, who watched the match remotely, considered the players to be "heroes" despite the loss.
"[The president] watched. He was rooting for the team. We lost in a fair and great game. They are still great guys for us, they are heroes. They were dying on the pitch, we are proud with them," Peskov was quoted by Interfax as saying.
The Russian team itself said it was leaving the tournament "with tears in our eyes, but with our head held high."
"Thank you for those sincere, genuine emotions that you gave us throughout the World Cup. Thank you for believing in us. Thank you for everything! You are the best fans in the world!!!" the team wrote on Twitter.
Russia's coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, said: "We don't have any chances to win this cup and, of course, we are sad. But we showed our worth."
Upon arrival back in Moscow, the team said on Twitter that it would meet with fans at the FIFA Fan Zone in Moscow on July 8.
Most experts did not expect Russia to advance this far into the tournament. The team was ranked 70th in the world by FIFA before the matches began.
Croatia will now face England on July 11 in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium to decide who will play in the July 15 final, also at Luzhniki. France will play Belgium on July 10 in St. Petersburg in the other seminal match.
The quarterfinal loss deprived the Russians of advancing to a semifinal match for the first time since the squad of the Soviet Union came in fourth at the 1966 tournament in England.
Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who has served several jail sentences for organizing antigovernment protests, also hailed the team's effort.
"It's unfortunate, but nonetheless it was a great game," he wrote on Twitter.
"And this is a national team that the country is proud of. Thank you, guys, for the fact that millions of people simultaneously chanted: Russia!"
Many disappointed fans broke out in applause after the tense loss to Croatia, spilling out of bars and viewing areas chanting "Russia" and dancing to music on the streets.
Reuters quoted student Artyom Osadchy as saying: "It was a great match. Well done to our guys, they tried very hard...I'm really happy that we made it to the quarters for the first time in [Russia's] history."
Russian fans celebrated late into the night after the host team exceeded expectations on July 1 and defeated powerful Spain, ranked No. 10 in the world by FIFA, also on penalty kicks, building the anticipation and hopes for the quarterfinal match.
This time, it was the Croatian fans' turn to celebrate.
"Russia has fallen! Hug, cry...Croatia is among the four best teams in the world," the commentator on state-run HRT television channel shouted.
AFP reported that tens of thousands of Croats poured onto the streets after the victory, singing and waving flares and Croatian flags.
Some 15,000 people converged in Zagreb's main square, where the "match of a generation" had been shown on a large screen.
A popular song, Play My Croatia, When I See You My Heart Is On Fire!, was heard in squares and streets throughout the Balkan country.