Fans, media hail Croatian World Cup team

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It published a photo of captain Luka Modric who was awarded the Golden Ball for the best player at the World Cup. "Brave hearts - You made us proud," said the Jutarnji List. "Croatia celebrates you, you are our gold!" echoed the Vecernji List.

The team, carried by a charter flight with "Bravo, the Blazers!" painted on the fuselage, was escorted by two MiG-21 fighter jets after entering Croatian air space. Approximately 110,000 ecstatic fans waited in central Zagreb's Ban Jelacic square to welcome back their heroes while over 150,000 lined the entire 20-kilometre route from the airport to the square, according to police estimates.

The Croatian media hailed their team, known as "Vatreni (The Fiery Ones), for uniting this poor, bankrupt country and a polarized society faced with economic hardships. "Thank you, heroes! - You gave us everything!" read the Sportske Novosti frontpage. "Vatreni", you are the biggest, you are our pride, your names will remain written in gold forever!" the newspaper said.

Players were called to the stage one by one and each of them gave a short speech. They expressed gratitude to the Croatian people and fans who supported them. Each of them received a big round of applause, but the biggest was reserved for head coach Zlatko Dalic, who managed to bring fresh energy and self-confidence to the team and transform it into a winning squad.

For Croatia, a country of just over four million people, their World Cup loss to France brought tears to their eyes. They were on verge of an unprecedented achievement as an "underdog", but sadness quickly turned into pure joy and pride after delivering thrilling World Cup matches including formidable victories over football powerhouses like Argentina and England.

The plane landed shortly after 3pm, its passengers not knowing they would embark on an unexpectedly long journey. It took them five hours to reach the city center, as the bus with an open rooftop driven by two drivers dressed in red-and-white checkered jerseys and decorated with Croatian flags was moving at a snail's pace because of the cheering crowd along the route.

Dalic couldn't handle the scene and burst into tears on the stage. "You are the best fans in the world, thank you for your welcome. We have given our best but you have given your best too. Above all - Croatia!"

ZAGREB, July 16 (Xinhua) -- Croatia's football team has returned home where a jubilant crowd of nearly half a million people greeted them as heroes a day after losing the World Cup final 4-2 to France. Golden Ball winner Luka Modric and his teammates made it back home after guiding Croatia to their best-ever finish at a World Cup, eclipsing their third-place finish in 1998.

When the team finally reached the main square at around 9pm, the crowd that had gathered from all corners of Croatia erupted in the biggest homecoming celebration the country has seen since gaining independence in 1991.