Deep inside the bowels of the Luzkniki Stadium, long past midnight, Dejan Lovren emerged with his head held high. A couple of hours earlier he’d shackled Harry Kane in the World Cup semi-final at the heart of the Croatia defence. For the third time in three knockout matches, Croatia had gone all the way. Three times they’d played extra-time. The only difference for the England game compared to Denmark and Russia before was that Mario Mandzukic struck late to make sure Croatia would avoid a third successive penalty shootout.
The Liverpool defender now had a World Cup final to look forward to. Like his brother Davor, he would have a duel against Kylian Mbappe. The younger Lovren came up against the unstoppable France forward during the Under-19 European Championship two years ago. Predictably, Mbappe scored. But thoughts of France and Mbappe could wait. Lovren had something to get off his chest.
“Especially after everything that’s been said before the game about us, we showed our character and we showed we deserved to be in the final," he said. "People should respect us from today on.”
Croatia are where they are thanks to a large amount of skill and ability. Of that there is no question. Players like Sime Vrsaljko, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic, Ante Rebic and Mario Mandzukic appear to be right at the top of their game. Croatia are controlling matches, using their experience and knowhow to grind out results and to conjure goals at key times.
What cannot be ignored, however, is the sheer bloody-mindedness that has helped carry Croatia to their first ever World Cup final. Lovren’s first words to the media after beating England were not to express joy or excitement at reaching the landmark. Instead, he was about to rub it in everybody’s faces.
“They said we are tired, but we showed in extra time that we had fresher legs than them," he said. "It’s as simple as that."
That victory was one for everyone who said Croatia would be too exhausted for England after two periods of extra-time. It was for those who said “Football’s Coming Home”, even if it was meant in jest. More than anything else, it was for everyone who said Dejan Lovren was not good enough.
“In my case, you’re talking about me - that I’m this or that - people should respect me also," he said. "From today on I think everyone in Croatia and around the world thinks that we managed to make history.”
Back in October, Lovren was taken to the cleaners by Kane against Tottenham in the Premier League. A chastening afternoon ended after just 31 minutes when he was called ashore by Jurgen Klopp having made two glaring errors. Many wondered if his Liverpool career could recover. It was a question which came up prior to the game by an English journalist, who reminded Lovren of his difficulties at Wembley that day.
He bristled with indignation before the game and he was all too happy to unload again once the final whistle blew.
“Yesterday I received a question like what do you think about this 4-1 against Tottenham," he said. "I really don’t understand these questions; why they are looking always back, where I made some mistakes. This is what gets me always to work harder and to prove everyone wrong.”
It was the most challenging season of Lovren’s time at Anfield and the signing of Virgil van Dijk in the winter was widely perceived as being the beginning of the end. Lovren defied expectations, forged a strong partnership with the Dutchman down the backstretch of the Champions League and helped Liverpool back to the Champions League final.
“It’s a perfect season," he said. "Unfortunately I didn’t win the final of the Champions League but there is still this. We wrote history and we should not forget this. For us, it’s a big achievement."
He might well have finished on the losing side that night – defeated by some Gareth Bale magic – but he emerged with his reputation enhanced. And he’s played his part in taking this Croatia team to the brink of the world title.
“If somebody told me at the beginning of the season that I would be in two finals, the biggest finals in the world, I would have signed straight away," he said. "I went through a lot of shit."
Lovren has not always had the easiest relationship with his country’s football team and missed out on Euro 2016 with “personal issues”.
“Last tournament I wasn’t there," he said. "I just decided I didn’t deserve to be there because things around my personal life weren’t good. I don’t want to go to the national team and to make problems so I preferred to stay on the side. That was still my mistake but I can live with that. And I made it right.”
He has been solid alongside Domagoj Vida here in Russia however, scarcely putting a foot wrong. He has defended with intelligence and aggression, used the ball well, and put his body on the line time and again. While the last season has been challenging on a personal level, he clearly feels sufficiently secure enough in his game now to describe himself as one of the best defenders in the world.
“Without being arrogant, I think definitely," he said. "If you are in the final then you are with the two best teams in the world.”
Lovren remarked that Klopp has been helpful in restoring his self-belief.
“He’s proud of me," he said. "Of what I achieved and he knows what I went through. He’s just a good man. Even in tough times, he was always backing me up and I appreciate that.”
But it’s Lovren's characteristic defiance that has given him the opportunity to earn a shot at the World Cup title. Lovren may well have been the butt of a number of jokes earlier in the season but it’s he and not Harry Kane who’s in the final.
“It will be again a big challenge for us but I believe in this team," he said. "I believed it from after the Argentina game. I said then I have a good feeling. People have been mocking on us but we showed that we deserved to be here.”
And no one’s laughing now.