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Croatia get heroes' welcome after eliminating England

ZAGREB, Nov 22 (Reuters) Thousands of fans sporting team shirts and flags welcomed Croatia at Zagreb airport today following their victory over England at Wembley, which prevented the home side from qualifying for the Euro 2008 finals.

The supporters formed a colonnade of honour for coach Slaven Bilic and the players after yesterday's stunning 3-2 win kept England out of a major tournament for the first time since the 1994 World Cup finals.

''We are a small nation with a big heart and a lot of pride,'' Bilic told Croatian media.

Croatia won Group E with 29 points from 12 matches to reach next year's tournament in Austria and Switzerland.

Second-placed Russia joined them with 24 points after a 1-0 win at Andorra put them a point ahead of England who needed a draw against Croatia to qualify.

''It was a splendid show by Croatia whereas England should bow to our lads and feel blessed to have seen a team of such quality play at Wembley,'' said daily Vecernji List.

''We are on our way to Austria and Switzerland with our heads up and fire in our hearts, needing no gratitude or presents from the fortuitous Russians,'' the paper said.

Jutarnji List called the outcome ''a spectacular win'' and said Mladen Petric's winner was ''the killer punch'' that meant ''lights out for England'' and ''steered Russia across the Alps into the finals.'' ''It was the greatest ever win for Croatia,'' it said, and quoted Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva as saying the country were capable of becoming European champions.

''I will remember this win for the rest of my life. We have a great atmosphere and fantastic staff, I believe we can go all the way in Austria and Switzerland to win it,'' Eduardo said.

Ivica Olic, who scored Croatia's second goal to give them a 2-0 lead after 14 minutes, praised the 6,000 fans who made the trip to London and offered a joking reminder that England would take no part in the finals.

''The fans were like an extra man on the pitch and made us feel at home,'' he said. ''As for England, they got what they deserved for underestimating us but they are welcome to enjoy the splendours of Croatia's Adriatic coast next summer.'' Reuters RAR RN1836

Story first published: Thursday, November 22, 2007, 19:19 [IST]
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