SAINT-DENIS, France -- They tried to keep their heads high. Yet, as Croatian players came out of the locker room, there was a look of deep disappointment in their eyes.
Croatia let a 1-0 lead slip away and crashed out of the World Cup semifinal with a 2-1 defeat against host France on Wednesday. Instead of playing the final against Brazil on Sunday, the World Cup rookie will contest the third-place match against the Netherlands on Saturday.
"We beat ourselves," said defender Igor Stimac. "We gave away the goals as gifts to France."
Still, it was a magnificent achievement for the small nation of 4.8 million people, which in the quarterfinals knocked out Germany, which has 6 million registered players, with a 3-0 victory.
"The only difference was that this time we could not hold our lead even two minutes. Had we managed to hold the lead for a little while, we would have won," Stimac said. "Who knows if we'll have another chance like this to play in the final?"
Davor Suker fired his fifth goal of the tournament 26 seconds into the second half. But defender Lilian Thuram replied just a minute later and then clinched it in the 70th.
"We gave our maximum. We scored the goal and we were already in the final," said Suker. "But we conceded the equalizer too early.
"We really wanted to play the final, but now we have to concentrate and try to be third."
Defender Slaven Bilic, who was slammed in the face by French defender Laurent Blanc to earn the Frenchman a red card and give Croatia a man advantage for the last 20 minutes, also felt his team had the victory in its hands.
"We had a fantastic opportunity. Everything was going the way we predicted before the match," he said.
"If we had been able to hold on to our lead for just five minutes ... their fans would have been down, the French team would have been down. We didn't pressure them enough.
"I felt the way we played, they wouldn't be able to score all night. They were tiring, they had two matches with extra time behind them. But then we made a stupid mistake," he said.
On the first goal, Thuram robbed Croatian captain Zvonimir Boban of the ball on the edge of the penalty area just before scoring.
Boban was later substituted, suffering from a muscle injury that he took into the game.
"My leg was really hurting and I wasn't ready to play tonight," said Boban.
Coach Miroslav Blazevic said France in the end deserved the victory.
"With a little bit more caution, we could have been the lucky ones. At halftime, we thought the French were without strength. I thought we would win.
"We scored and then the worst thing in soccer happened -- we conceded a goal in the same minute," Blazevic said.
"I think we can be really proud of what we achieved in this World Cup. But still I can't get rid of the impression that we could have done more."