From there the pressure on England mounted until Croatia scored the winner in the second half of extra-time through Mario Mandzukic, leaving English fans around the world distraught.
Croatia will now play France in its first-ever final on Monday morning from 1am (AEST), becoming the smallest country since Uruguay in 1950 to qualify for the final.
Here’s how the world reacted to the earth-shaking clash in Moscow.
‘UTTERLY CHOKED’: FORMER PLAYERS WEIGH IN
SBS football analysts Craig Foster and David Zdrilic lamented England’s loss in The World Game’s post-match wrap. Foster said Croatia’s performance on the world stage as a country of 4.1 million people was “unbelievable”, while Zdrilic tore into the losers for being too complacent after their breakthrough goal.
“I think in this game they got too comfortable,” he said. “I think they were thinking in the second half, ‘OK, we don’t see them as much of a threat’. And then the goal comes and it totally changes everything. From there it’s not easy to just say ‘let’s go and pick ourselves up’.
Former England star and BBC football commentator Gary Lineker said the young English pack did their country proud in Russia but admitted they “utterly choked” when pressure arrived.
Utterly choked, but this young side gave absolutely everything. It’s a huge step forward and they’ll only get better in the future. They can hold their heads high, they did our country proud. Congratulations to Croatia.
England captain Harry Kane was far from his usual best upfront for England in the semi-final. A particularly damning missed opportunity off a free kick in the second half, which saw the prolific striker butcher his attempt in front of goal to send the ball sailing from play.
One could put the young skipper’s performance down to nerves, but Sky Sports football analyst Gary Neville claims the 24-year-old was nursing an injury sustained over a week ago.
“I’d be amazed if we didn’t learn in the next few days that Kane wasn’t carrying an injury since the Colombia game. I’d be amazed,” he said.
“He wasn’t even moving around in the second half against Colombia. Against Sweden he was static. It’s not an excuse. He’s just not looked right.”
Neville wasn’t the only one speculating about Kane’s fitness as the match progressed. Football journalists Mark Douglas and Graham Ruthven pointed out the leading goalscorer’s hindered performance on Thursday.
Be interesting to find out post tournament. Kane and Alli looked like they are carrying their shopping around the pitch. Don’t look tired, they look injured.
Fox Soccer pundit Stu Holden praised Croatia’s ferocity in attack which forced England’s listless defence into a state of panic late in the game.
What a performance from #CRO again... battled their way through the knock outs and place in the final well deserved. Modric and Rakitic good again, but Perisic and Rebic caused #ENG Problems all night. Manduzkic the hero. #WorldCup
Former England star John Barnes said the national side will return home to a heroes’ welcome despite their deeply disappointing capitulation late in the second half.
The side’s 2018 campaign saw them reach their first semi-final in 28 years and finish ahead of World Cup heavyweights Germany, Brazil and Spain.
A dejected Kane said his side took pleasure in showing the world what the young English pack could do and fully accepted the loss.
“We worked as hard as we could. It hurts, it hurts a lot. It’s going to hurt for a while, of course, but we can hold our heads up high,” Kane said after the match.
“It’s been a fantastic journey, going further than anyone thought we would. We’ve just got to learn from it and take what we can.
“We created some good chances being 1-0 up, and maybe we dropped too deep at times. It’s a lot of ifs and buts. It’s hard in these big games, it’s small margins and it went their way today.”
CROATIAN TEAM’S DREAM COME TRUE
Croatia spearhead Ivan Perisic played an integral role in Thursday morning’s thunderous victory, which the 29-year-old says was a dream come true.
“We started slowly but we’ve shown our character, just as we have in the previous two knockout rounds when we were one goal down in both matches. We didn’t used to be that resilient,” Perisic told FIFA.com.
“Twenty years ago I was back home in Omis, my home town. I rooted for Croatia, wearing a Croatia jersey, and I could only dream of playing for my country and scoring one of the most important goals to send us to a final.”