By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Scores of Croatian fans took to the streets of Moscow on Sunday ahead of their country's first ever World Cup final appearance, cheering and waving flags in anticipation of the historic match against France.
With four hours to go until kickoff at 1800 local time (1500 GMT) Croatian fans in the centre of Moscow appeared to out-number their more low-key French counterparts.
That may be due in part to the fact that Croatians are so thrilled that their team has made it this far.
Croatia eliminated hosts Russia in the quarter-finals and England in the semis, delighting their home country of 4.2 million people.
"Whether we win today or lose, Croatia is going to be on fire," said Croatian fan Kristjan Alapic, from the city of Velika Gorica, as he stood outside Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre.
"Tomorrow don't expect anybody to show up for work. This brings the whole population together."
When Croatia take on France at Moscow's Luzhniki stadium later on Sunday, the team hopes to settle an old score with the French dating back to the 1998 World Cup.
That year, Croatia's World Cup dreams were ended when France beat them 2-1 in the semi-finals before going on to win the tournament.
"It is unbelievable to be in the final for such a small country such as Croatia," said 47-year-old Croatian fan Denis Papac near Red Square. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
After Croatia eliminated Russia, Croatian tour operators struggled to secure enough aeroplane space to get all the country's fans to Russia for the World Cup.
"There weren't that many Croatians earlier in the tournament," said 30-year-old Miro Susa from Osijek, who was on a square adjacent to the Kremlin.
"This is a unique opportunity. This will maybe never happen again."
While Croatian fans were gearing up for the match, Russian police stepped up security, closing off traffic in central Moscow in preparation for the visits of high-ranking officials tied in to the World Cup.
Ahead of the final Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks on Sunday with Hungarian President Viktor Orban and Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and was still expecting French President Emmanuel Macron.
At Moscow's Luzhniki stadium, hundreds of security staff in civilian clothes were inspecting the premises.
French fans were more reserved ahead of the final and seemed to be fewer in number than their Croatian counterparts.
"I've been seeing a lot of Croatians. That has really hit me," said 32-year-old French fan Benjamin Haddad. "The atmosphere is very Croatian right now."
Haddad could not explain why French fans were less visible on the streets of Moscow ahead of the match but suggested the enthusiasm of the Croatians could be tied to their team's unforeseen success.
"It's the first final in Croatia's history," he said. "It's a surprise for them to be here. It's an even more historical moment for them."
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, additional reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Toby Davis)