Thousands of cheering and flag-waving Russian fans thanked their disappointed players on Sunday after the host nation’s fairytale World Cup run came to a crushing end with a shootout loss to Croatia.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov led his team onto a stage to a heroes’ welcome in a Moscow fan zone on a sunny day that was meant to put a patriotic exclamation point on Russia’s ability to beat the odds.
The long-suffering Russians entered the biggest event in sport as its lowest-ranked nation but ended up coming up just short of reaching their first World Cup semi-final in 52 years.
They lost to Croatia 4-3 on penalties after extra-time ended with the sides deadlocked at 2-2 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Saturday.
“You were not the 12th player — you were the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th players,” Cherchesov told the crowd gathered on a scenic hill overlooking Luzhniki Stadium.
“We felt your support from the first second.”
The national team has been gaining followers and drawing increasing political attention from government leaders with every win.
President Vladimir Putin has invited Cherchesov and his charges to the Kremlin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev came down into the players’ locker room after the loss.