MOSCOW: Croatian soccer fans are pulling out all the stops to be in Moscow on Sunday, when their national team will take part in a World Cup final for the first time in its history.
Croatia secured a hard-won spot in the tournament showpiece against France, to be held at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, after defeating England 2-1 on Wednesday, the team's third consecutive match to go into extra time.
The final is a moment Croatian soccer fans are desperate not to miss.
Sitting in a street-side cafe in Moscow, wearing his country's red and white chequered colours, fan Zdenko Corluka said he had spent all morning fielding calls from friends back home, who were booking flights to Moscow and hoping he could find them a ticket to Sunday's game.
"All the time, each phone ringing and everybody calling to say, 'buy to us ticket, buy to us ticket'," said Corluka, whose cousin, Vedran Corluka, is a player in the Croatian national team.
Within an hour of waking up on Thursday, 25 of his friends had already wired him money for the tickets, Corluka said. The two phones in front of him were constantly buzzing with notifications.
FOR ANY MONEY
Corluka said he thought tickets to the final now cost around US$2,500.
"It's a lot of money but this is one time in your life," he said.
Croatia fan Boris Kuzmanovic, 31, staying in Moscow for Sunday's game, said there was no limit to how much he, or friends back home, were willing to pay for a ticket to the match.
"Croatians are crazy, they are buying on credit cards, doing anything, it's not smart," Kuzmanovic said.
"(But) when again will we have the chance to watch Croatia in the final?" he said, shrugging. His wife, who is pregnant, is also seeing if she can find flights to Moscow, he added.
Ivan Skegro, 30, from Zagreb, said he had to fly back home from Moscow on Thursday after watching the semi-final against England the previous day. But as soon as the referee blew the whistle, confirming Croatia's place in Sunday's final, he knew he would be flying to Moscow again two days later.
"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," Skegro said, adding that return flights from Zagreb were now about 1,500 euros (US$1,753.7).
"That's only the plane! You have to buy a ticket, let's say that's 500 euros. So a mini trip to Moscow is four months of the (average) salary," he added, laughing.
"But we have bicycles and we will (cycle) to Moscow - don't worry, we will come."
EMPTY PLANE SEATS
Two Croatia fans in central Moscow said they were supposed to be on a flight home on Thursday evening, but that their seats would remain empty.
"We have return tickets for tonight, but as you see, we are here still," Marco, a manager in a Croatian food company from Zagreb, said.
He has made the decision to miss his flight before asking for permission from his employers to take the time off. But he said that was not a cause for concern.
"Croatia is burning at the moment so we doubt that anyone would be against it," he said.
Fans are also fired up for the game as they see it as an opportunity for Croatia to seek revenge for their semi-final defeat by France in the 1998 World Cup.
"It's a costly decision, but not a difficult one," said Iosip, a fan from Zagreb who has also missed his flight home and has no plan for how to get back.
"Worst case scenario: rent a car. The gas is cheap in Russia," he said.
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)