DOHA - Croatia's run to the semi-finals of a second consecutive World Cup was nothing short of remarkable for the small Balkan nation and even Tuesday's 3-0 defeat by Argentina does not overshadow their achievements on football's biggest stage.
Reaching the last four in Russia and Qatar was barely conceivable six years ago. Croatia were a team in near disarray, their fans were fighting each other at Euro 2016 and the leadership of the Croatian FA faced corruption allegations.
The appointment of Ante Cacic, a former TV repairman, as head coach had only fanned the flames of discontent.
Fast forward to Qatar, where Croatia entered the tournament as 2018 runners-up with an ageing squad led by 37-year-old Luka Modric and with Zlatko Dalic, who replaced Cacic before the 2018 tournament, at the helm.
Coming through their group with a win over Canada and draws against Belgium and surprise semi-finalists Morocco, conceding only one goal along the way, the Croats showed they were again a force to be reckoned with.
No longer the explosive attacking team of 2018 that stunned England in the semi-finals before losing to France in the final, Croatia have matured into a well-oiled machine where each player knows what needs to be done to get the result.
Their midfield of Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Modric looked so solid that team mate Josip Juranovic said it was "safer than having money in the bank", while 20-year-old defender Josko Gvardiol pulled the strings at the back.
Croatia got past Japan in a shootout in the Round of 16 before delivering one of the shocks of the tournament by eliminating five-times champions Brazil in the same manner.
In another display of mental toughness, Croatia had conceded an extra-time goal to Brazil's Neymar but dug their way out of trouble by scoring an 117th minute equaliser through Bruno Petkovic.
Before Tuesday's 3-0 loss to Lionel Messi's Argentina, Croatia had needed penalties or extra time in five of six knockout matches at the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
They won all four of their penalty shootouts.
"I have nothing to blame the boys for, now we have to raise our heads and get ready for the (third place) game that awaits us," Dalic said.
"If someone had offered us this before the tournament, we would have accepted it. We are really proud."
Few will question Croatia's commitment in the match to decide third place in Qatar. Their opponents will be known after defending champions France face Morocco in the other semi-final later of Wednesday.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Peter Rutherford )