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By Tom Balmforth and Polina Ivanova
MOSCOW, July 7 (Reuters) - The Kremlin dubbed the Russian national team heroes and proud soccer fans saluted their underdog host team after the side lost on penalties to Croatia, bringing an end to its World Cup challenge at the quarter-finals.
Across Russia, hand-wringing fans had held their breath through extra time, hoping the team could pull off another upset. Russia entered the World Cup as the lowest ranking side, but reached the quarter finals against the odds.
The disappointment of defeat late on Saturday soon melted into applause as fans toasted a national side that had repeatedly defied expectations. Fans spilling out of bars chanted “Russia,” dancing in the street and singing along as music blared.
“Our boys, they really did great. A huge thank you to them for this tournament. What we achieved, that was so cool,” Andrey, a lawyer, said next to a street corner screen that had shown the match.
President Vladimir Putin did not attend the game, but watched remotely, saying the players were heroes despite the defeat and the country was proud of them, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by Interfax.
“He watched, he was rooting for the team. We lost in a fair and great game. They are still great guys for us, they are heroes. They were dying on the pitch, we are proud with them,” Peskov was quoted as saying.
Despite the result, street parties broke out in central Moscow in scenes reminiscent of the celebrations following Russia’s shock victory over Spain on Sunday. The Kremlin likened those festivities to images of celebrations after victory in World War Two.
“It was a great match. Well done to our guys, they tried very hard... I’m really happy that we made it to the quarters for the first time in history,” said Artyom Osadchy, a student.
Russians tuned in across the country, from soldiers at their barracks in Rostov-on-Don to ballerinas in Saint Petersburg back stage. Wild animal tamers at a circus in Moscow crouched round a phone streaming the game.
Russia and Croatia were tied 1-1 after a tense ninety minutes. Croatia went a goal up in extra time, but Russia managed to claw back in the final minutes, equalising to make it 2-2.
During the penalty shootout, taxis pulled over with their hazard lights on and listened on the radio.
“It was just that the roulette wheel was not in our favour today,” said Andrey the lawyer after Russia lost 4-3 in the shoutout.
Other fans looked to the future on the heels of Russia’s best World Cup performance since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“You can’t take the trophy straight away. It’s the first time we’re in the quarter finals in a very long time. You can’t have everything straight away. It was a very dignified game,” Evgenia, 36, a psychologist, said. (Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by David Gregorio)