By David Crossland in Berlin
The cheers, the cries of "Deutschland, Deutschland," the honking of horns, the whole wall of sound that has echoed around cities since June 9 ended within a second of the final whistle.
In the country's biggest public viewing area, the Fan Fest behind the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, 900,000 fans fell silent and drifted home with their flags stuffed in their pockets and tears smudging the national colors of black, red and gold painted onto their faces.
Many squatted on the ground staring into space for a while, pondering how close their team had come yet again to reaching the World Cup final. Had Italy not scored its two goals in the final seconds of extra time, the match would have gone to a penalty shootout, which Germany would have probably won, because they always have so far.
Some vented their anger by calling Italy a "mafia club". Across Germany there were isolated reports of fans throwing over tables in Italian restaurants and in one case, in the eastern city of Stendal, some 40 people converged menacingly on an ice cream parlour. But police had little trouble keeping order and there were only minor scuffles.
"We're sad, but we're proud," said one fan draped in the German flag. "I really thought we'd get into the final," said another. "This is shit."
Some managed to shrug off the disappointment and took the defeat with humor. On a subway train in eastern Berlin, fans changed the popular chant "Final Oh Oh Oh Oh" into "No Final Oh Oh Oh Oh" and found it still worked.
The only honking cars belonged to Italians who raced around Berlin shouting "Italia, Italia," oblivious to the sullen looks they were getting. Some Italian fans even hired an open-top bus to cruise around the emptying streets but passers by seemed to make a point of ignoring them.
On Wednesday morning, every other car still had a German flag on it. But retailers slashed their prices on fan merchandise. The big question now is whether the upbeat mood and outpouring of patriotism in recent weeks, the flag waving, the fervent singing of the national anthem, marked a genuine revival in national pride or was just a short-lived summer carnival.
The country's most read newspaper, the mass-circulation daily Bild urged Germans to go on partying. "Even the last miseryguts has to admit: Germany is liveable and loveable. The country is beautiful and full of opportunity.
"That's why the party must go on! We have to keep up the sense of renewal, the self confidence, the good mood for our everyday lives. This is just the momentum we so urgently need to face the tough tasks ahead."
The World Cup hasn't changed the fact that Germany remains weighed down by mass unemployment, slow economic growth, high public debt and a social welfare system struggling to cope with an ageing population and surging costs.
Chancellor Angela Merkel went as far as to call the country an "economic basket case" two weeks ago -- a comment that jarred with the country's World Cup festivities.
Stay proud, says president
President Horst Köhler said Germans should stay upbeat even after the World Cup. "We can achieve a lot if we have the courage to try new things," said Köhler. "We should remember that after the World Cup.
"The Germans are identifying themselves with their country and its national colors. I think that's great. And I think it's great that I'm not the only one with a flag on my car," added Köhler.
Oliver Bierhoff, Germany's national team manager, said: "We feel this never-ending emptiness right now. We all had this dream. Suddenly it's over. No one feels like analysing it right now." But he added that the gloom would soon lift and the team would realise they had a lot to be proud of.
About 100 fans cheered and clapped when the team bus arrived back at the hotel at 3 a.m.
"Chin up lads! The Italians were (still) too good for us," wrote Bild, which had on Tuesday exhorted the lads to devour the Italians like pizza, even picturing each Italian player on a slice of the Italian delicacy.
"Don't hang your heads, you fought like World Champions! What's grown in the recent weeks will stay. The Germans have rediscovered the love of their country and their team. We look forward to the future, to seeing more of this team. Wunderbar."
Die Welt said the team deserved respect for what it had achieved. "The German team failed to get to the final. But it still won respect and approval. And above all a huge amount of sympathy."
Team coach Jürgen Klinsmann told German television: "The team played a phantastic tournament. It tore itself apart and went to its limits. I have the highest regard for what our boys did. This team has character and made the whole country proud. One can only make them compliments.
"This World Cup was a huge success for the team and for all of Germany. We showed the world another face of Germany."
But the future of German football, now evidently emerging from a trough, remains unclear because Klinsmann is still deciding whether to stay on.
Widely credited for creating a strong, competitive team and succeeding where his two predecessors failed, Klinsmann's contract expires at the end of the tournament. He said he hadn't yet decided yet whether to stay on.
Ever since he took over after Germany's disastrous performance in the 2004 European Championship in Portugal, relations between him and the old guard in the German Football Association (DFB) have been strained by his adoption of modern training methods -- including attaching players to rubber bands -- as well as his refusal to move to Germany from California and his selection of players.
His team's success has strengthened his public position, however, and he is likely to be able to dictate terms if he does stay on. Klinsmann said he didn't know yet whether he wanted to keep the job. "I will discuss it with my wife and my family in the coming days and a decision will be taken at some point," said Klinsmann, adding that he had asked the DFB for time to think.
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