After a 23-year wait to qualify for a major tournament, Scotland’s Euro 2020 experience lasted just eight days after a 3-1 defeat to Croatia extinguished their hopes of reaching the last 16.
The Tartan Army will fondly remember frustrating England in a 0-0 draw at Wembley on Friday from their return to the international football limelight.
But a masterclass from Croatia’s Luka Modric sent Steve Clarke’s men packing from the tournament with a reminder of the class it takes to succeed at this level.
“They were unbelievable tonight, Modric especially,” said Arsenal defender Kieran Tierney, who is accustomed to coming up against world-class opponents on a weekly basis in the Englihs Premier League.
“I think his performance was incredible.”
Three years ago, most of Scotland cheered as Croatia beat England to reach the World Cup final.
On Tuesday, fans of the Three Lions had their revenge as they celebrated Scotland’s exit while watching their side beat the Czech Republic 1-0 at Wembley to secure top spot in Group D.
With both sides needing a win to secure their place in the knockout stages after taking just one point from their opening two games, Croatia’s greater experience in controlling their nerves across 90 minutes was telling.
After conceding early to Nikola Vlasic, Scotland struck back with their first goal of the tournament through Callum McGregor to go in level at half-time.
But their energy reserves ran dry in the second-half as Croatia kept the ball and finally ended the Scots’ resistance in style.
Modric is the only man since 2007 to deny Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo the Ballon d’Or and showed why he belongs in such exulted company.
The 35-year-old, playing in his 62nd game of the season for club and country, received the ball on the edge of the box and fired into the top corner with the outside of his right foot.
“No one is sure how Luka manages that,” Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic said of the Real Madrid midfielder.
“We expect that Luka will go down, lose his strength, but he is the force that pulls the whole team. He never gives up.”
Manager Steve Clarke said Scotland will need to follow that example with the 2022 World Cup less than 18 months away.
His side will face a much tougher task to reach Qatar with just 13 spots available to European nations compared to 24 at Euro 2020.
However, Clarke was keen to stress the progress Scotland have made in his two years in charge since a humiliating 3-0 defeat to Kazakhstan ended Alex McLeish’s reign as manager at the start of Euro 2020 qualifying.
“Tonight we were against a team that are tournament hardened and who knew how to play the third game in the group—and we probably didn’t. That’s why we are going home and Croatia are going through,” he said.
“I promise you it won’t be 23 years till the next one.”
For Croatia, next up is a trip to Copenhagen on Monday to face one of Spain, Sweden, Slovakia or Poland.
After a lacklustre opening two games, Dalic complained his side had been unfairly written off back home.
But the surprise package of the 2018 World Cup are not done yet thanks in large part to their inspirational captain.
“We were not happy with performances in the first two matches and we knew we could be better,” said Modric.
“When we play like this, we are dangerous to everyone.”