ZAGREB-Croatia feverishly prepared Saturday for its first ever World Cup final as the small Balkan nation swells with pride at its team's performance - and firmly believes they can win against France.

Red-and-white chequerboards are everywhere -- on car hoods, in shop windows, trams, buses as well as on jerseys worn by waiters, shop workers or TV presenters. Butchers arranged their meat in a red and white pattern while a Zagreb beauty salon told clients they would not be doing French manicures until Monday in a sign of support to the national team.

And in a Zagreb bar waiters were "drawing" portraits of Croatian players on the froth of coffees. "What was Brazil once, is Croatia now... Croatia are the world champions!" say the words of a popular song aired by radio and TV stations to boost moral.

"The squad's success is an inspiration... it has brought optimism that has cast its spell over the whole society," said Gordana Deranja, head of the Croatian employers' association. Newspapers were ecstatic, praising the team known in Croatian as "Vatreni" (the Fiery Ones) that beat England in the semi-finals to reach the final in a feat not seen for such a small nation since Uruguay reached football's pinnacle in 1930 and 1950.

Croatia had surpassed the achievements of the team that finished third at the 1998 World Cup in France. Tens of thousands of Croatians are expected to watch the match which kicks off at 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) on giant screens in squares and bars throughout the Adriatic country.

About 8,000 people were expected to watch in an ancient Roman amphitheatre in the northern port of Pula, organiser said. "Tomorrow Croatia writes history -- the whole world is watching us!" said the front page of the Jutarnji List newspaper, alongside a black and white photo of coach Zlatko Dalic talking to the players.

An additional 1,230 tickets for the final in Moscow were sold out half an hour after being released overnight, state-run HRT television reported. Tickets for 10 charter flights for Moscow for about 2,000 fans were snapped up.

Authorities have issued more than 4,300 passports since the quarter-finals. In Zagreb, the passport office was working overtime to process applications from fans wanting to attend the match. "Tomorrow there will be 4.5 million of us on the pitch!" read the front page of Novi List quoting Ivan Rakitic, who struck the decisive penalties in the shootouts against Denmark and Russia to reach the semi-finals.

Optimism reigned everywhere. "After watching the game with England I now genuinely believe that these boys can make it till the end," Domagoj Stanic, a 43-year-old administrator, told AFP in downtown Zagreb. He was wearing a jersey with a number 10 on the back, emulating captain Luka Modric.

"Our boys are the best, we believe in our victory! We are not as pretentious as the others," said Marija, a women in her sixties selling flowers in Zagreb's main square where the fan zone is located.

Regardless of the result, the team will be given a hero's welcome in Zagreb Monday, with more than hundred thousand people expected. Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic urged employers to allow their workers leave their jobs earlier Monday to attend what he called a "magnificent welcome party".

And if Croatia win the government is considering declaring Monday a day off, while President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic will formally honour Dalic and the players.



ZAGREB: A woman looks at the Croatia's national team jerseys in the downtown ahead of their World Cup clash against France.–AFP