"Logically, this shouldn't have been possible. When we played France, it was 50,000 against 65 million! But the experience has been extremely valuable. A dream. Up till now, our role models have been teams like Denmark or Iceland. But now we can use ourselves as role models."
The words were spoken by Áki Johansen who, in Croatia, was bringing down the curtain after a decade in what he described as his "third job". The dream had been converted into reality by the Faroe Islands, who had made history by reaching the elite round for the first time and had added another chapter to the fairy tale by qualifying for the finals. The somewhat less romantic angle was that injuries deprived him of four starters and suspensions of a further two as they took the field for the historic opener against Scotland.
Although Faroese giant-killing stopped at the Croatian frontier, Group B was, nonetheless, rich in surprises. The first was when Hungary came from a goal down to defeat France 3-2 and the last was when Lionel Rouxel's team needed a last-minute strike to win 2-1 against a Scotland team who, with 1-1 on the scoreboard, had been within seconds of taking the runners-up spot and sending France home. Hungary, by coming back again to draw with Scot Gemmill's side and then chiming midnight on the Faroese Cinderella story, took top spot.
The other Zagreb-based group adhered more strictly to the form book. Two-time winners England, in their 12th final tournament, opened against Norway – who were making their debut – and scored all four goals in a 3-1 win that fairly reflected the dominance of their fluid 1-4-3-3 formation against Norway's 1-4-4-2. Steve Cooper's team looked equally impressive in a 4-0 win against Ukraine who, having lost their opener against the Netherlands, bowed out.
Kees van Wonderen's Dutch side, after needing an added-time penalty to draw 2-2 with Norway, took on England needing a point to secure second place. A 3-0 defeat left them exposed to elimination. But Norway, pushing forward for the 1-0 win that would have seen them through, were hit by two late goals that condemned them to join Ukraine on the road to the airport.
Down on the coast, the hosts had been drawn into the tournament's 'group of death' alongside Spain, Turkey and Italy. Dario Bašić's side produced some attractive combinations and wing play against Italy but were beaten by a trademark four-pass Italian counterattack. Not having to qualify had arguably left them short of top-level experience and they were caught by two late counters while chasing an equaliser when trailing Turkey 2-1. The 4-1 defeat spelt elimination and yet another late goal deprived them of a consolation victory over Spain.
Santi Denia's team had fought back to defeat Turkey 3-2 despite conceding two goals in the first 11 minutes. After beating injury-depleted Italy 3-1, the 1-1 against Croatia was enough to secure first place. Emiliano Bigica's Italy took on Turkey with second place at stake and, although a neat combination on the right allowed them to restore parity after conceding early, they were sent home by a rare case of the keeper taking a back pass into his gloves. Turkey's free-kick inside the box travelled under a jumping wall and into the net.
Germany were, meanwhile, sailing through Group C, scoring an unprecedented 15 goals and joining France in the competition's record books by beating the Republic of Ireland 7-0 four days after Rouxel's side had run up the same scoreline against the Faroes. Bizarrely, Colin O'Brien's Irish squad could celebrate despite the heavy defeat – but only after detailed scrutiny of small print in the regulations. Serbia had beaten the Irish 1-0; O'Brien's team had beaten Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-1; and, when a last-minute goal gave the latter a 1-0 win over Serbia, the three-way tie on three points was resolved by the rule book in favour of the Republic, who earned a quarter-final against England.
It was a bridge too far for the plucky Irish, who spent most of the game in Velika Gorica penned into their defensive third and often deploying the entire workforce in a small area between the ball and their net. Despite a massive share of possession, England struggled to pierce the defensive armour – their only success being a long-range strike by Jadon Sancho early in a match of one-way traffic which ran into a solid jam just short of its destination.
On the previous day, Hungary coach Zoltán Szélesi remained loyal to his 1-4-2-3-1 set-up but shuffled his pack, fielding Dominik Szoboszlai on the left wing before reverting him to a controlling midfield role after just over 20 minutes. By this time, they were trailing Turkey 1-0, after a partially-cleared corner had led to András Csonka unluckily turning a shot into his own net.
Hungary's construction play was disrupted by high pressure from Turkey's front men, obliging them to play long rather more frequently than they might have liked. After a cautious counterattacking start, Turkey grew into the game, putting together neat combinations and looking more threatening than their opponents. The own goal, however, was the only score of the game.
Up in Varazdin, it took France only nine minutes to breach the Spain defence with a fast counter after a high ball-win, Amine Gouiri scoring for the eighth time by beating Álvaro Fernández at his near post. But two high-speed solo runs through the inside channels by Spain's full-backs stood the game on its head, Mateu Morey cutting in from the right to equalise with his left foot, while Juan Miranda's run on the left culminated in a penalty converted by Abel Ruíz during a virtuoso first-half by Denia's charges. When Ruíz's high ball-win allowed Sergio Gómez to round the keeper and make it 3-1 after 56 minutes, France's fate against the impressive Spaniards was all but sealed.
Van Wonderen produced a tactical surprise in the other quarter-final by deploying a 1-4-4-2 formation against Germany, with the two front men pressing high to disturb construction from the back. The Dutch were good value for the lead they took on the stroke of half-time but struggled to maintain their momentum when Christian Wück opted to mirror the 1-4-4-2 structure just after the hour mark, switching from his initial 1-4-2-3-1. Germany responded with an equaliser within four minutes and a winner seconds before the end of normal time.
This earned a semi-final against Spain – a game of high tactical and technical quality. Spain had the upper hand but were denied by excellent goalkeeping from Luca Plogmann and the only goalless draw of the tournament led to the first experiment with the new format for penalty shoot-outs. Spain captain Ruíz, who had struck the top angle from the penalty spot 11 minutes before time, opened the shoot-out with a successful strike and, after one penalty apiece against the woodwork and a save by Fernández, Denia's team secured a place in the final with a 4-2 advantage.
The other semi-final produced the curiosity of a goal timed at 40+13 – after a 15-minute delay when England midfielder Tashan Oakley-Boothe fell unconscious after a collision. The oddly-timed goal threw a lifeline to a Turkey team that had struggled to stay afloat amid incessant combination attacks by their opponents.
However, Mehmet Hacioğlu made clever switches of personnel and team structure to design a more evenly-contested second period which failed to change the 2-1 scoreline but demonstrated that the talented Turks were worthy of their place in the FIFA World Cup. Spain and England, the teams rated by many pundits as the best in the tournament, were to meet in the final.