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ZAGREB, Croatia – In an outburst of national pride and joy, Croatia on Monday rolled out a red carpet and staged a euphoric heroes' welcome for the country's national team despite its loss to France in the World Cup final.
Tens of thousands of people wearing national red-and-white colors and waving Croatian flags poured into the streets in of the capital Zagreb to greet the players, many coming to the city from other parts of the country.
The joyful, singing crowd crammed the city's central squares or lined up along the route where the players passed in an open bus, greeting the fans along the way and signing autographs.
Fans honking car horns, waving and shouting "Bravo! Bravo!" welcomed the bus as it slowly drove from the airport. The inscription at the front of the bus read: "Fiery heart, the pride of Croatia!" in reference to the name "The Fiery" as the team is dubbed at home.
As the bus went by, fans followed on bicycles or on foot, waving. Large players' photos were displayed along the way amid a cacophony of noise and cheers.
Earlier, Croatian air force jets escorted the plane carrying the team from Russia as it entered the country's air space and flew over the capital Zagreb.
"Champions! Champions!" roared the crowds as the players came out of the plane to a red carpet placed on the tarmac at the Zagreb airport.
The small country of 4 million people has been gripped in euphoria since its team beat England to reach its first World Cup final, where Croatia lost 4-2 to France.
The success has been the described as the biggest in Croatia's sporting history, boosting national pride and sense of unity in the country that fought a war to become independent from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s'.
Now a member of the European Union, Croatia's economy remains weak and people have been leaving the country looking for a more secure future elsewhere.
"I can't even begin to explain what this has meant for Croatian unity," President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic told The Associated Press in Moscow on Sunday. "I hope that this ... will boost the country's economic development and bring new jobs and young people back to the country."
Grabar-Kitarovic said Croatia, despite being a small country, has managed to make a difference in sports, but also science and culture.
"I'm so proud not only of our football team, I'm so proud of our nation," she said.
Croatia's state railway company halved ticket prices so fans could travel to Zagreb, while city authorities in the capital said public transportation would be free on Monday.
State TV urged citizens to come out and enjoy "the historic moment" of the players' return, while other media have described the players as "our heroes."
Associated Press Writer Angela Charlton has contributed to this report from Moscow.