Doha: Argentina was a step too far for a Croatia team that reached back-to-back World Cup semifinals and shocked Brazil along the way in Qatar.
Lionel Messi inspired Argentina to a 3-0 win at Lusail Stadium Tuesday and moved a step closer to lifting the one major trophy that has eluded him.
But for Croatia playmaker Luka Modric, this was almost certainly his last chance of winning the World Cup. He was substituted late on and left the field to applause from both sets of fans, who paid tribute to one of soccer's greats.
Croatia will play France or Morocco in the third place playoff, but it is time to look ahead to the next generation.
EXPECTATION VS. PERFORMANCE
Beaten finalists at the World Cup in Russia four years ago, Croatia wasn't expected to go deep again this time around. Especially after drawing 0-0 with underdog Morocco in its first group game.
That result has aged well as the tournament has progressed and Morocco emerged as the first African nation to reach the semifinals of a World Cup.
Croatia's spirit has been its most notable quality, coming back from behind against Japan and Brazil to go through on penalties in the round of 16 and quarterfinals.
But the run to the semis also involved a degree of luck. Croatia could have been knocked out at the earliest possible stage if Romelu Lukaku had taken one of a series of chances in a 0-0 draw with Belgium in its final Group F game.
The Croatians certainly weren't the most attractive team in Qatar, only winning one of six games in regulation or extra time, but they were tough to beat and defied expectations for the second World Cup in a row.
“They achieved great things and they’re the golden generation of Croatian football,” said coach Zlatko Dalić.
At the age of 37, Modric has likely played in his last World Cup, but he could still be around for the European Championships in 2024. Ivan Perisic and Dejan Lovren are both 33, and Andrej Kramaric, 31.
“Well, perhaps this is the end for the generation at the World Cup,” said Dalić. "A couple of them are at an age where it will be hard to play at the World Cup in 2026.
“I think a lot of players will finish off at Euro 2024.”
Dalić, who led Croatia to the final in Russia, also plans to stay on.
“I will continue, my contract runs until Euro 2024,” he said. “My plan is to qualify with Croatia for Euro 2024.”
Center back Josko Gvardiol has been one of the standout players of the World Cup and has been linked with a host of Europe's biggest clubs.
He was powerless to stop Messi's moment of magic in the buildup to Argentina's third goal, but he looks like he will be a key figure for his country going forward.
Mateo Kovacic is a seasoned international at 28, and could be the dominant force in midfield when Modric steps aside.
The third place playoff may seem like one of the most pointless games in soccer, but not for Croatia.
“Win the match and go back to Croatia with a medal,” said Modric. “We need to leave everything to win the bronze medal and let our fans celebrate one more time.”
Dalić is also looking further ahead to the Euros, with qualifying games against Wales and Turkey in March.