ROME (Reuters) - Glum Italian fans filed away from the ancient Circus Maximus in Rome well before four giant television screens recorded the end of an emphatic 4-0 defeat to Spain in the European Championship final on Sunday.
"A disaster, the dream is over," said Claudio Marangoni, 28, a transport worker from Rome who had faded Italian tricolour flags painted on each cheek. "No one expected to end up in the final but to lose like this is humiliating."
Tens of thousands of flag waving supporters had packed into the ancient Roman chariot racing arena, the scene of joyous celebrations after Italy's 2-1 victory over Germany in the semi-final on Thursday.
But the anticipation was quickly snuffed out and the early excitement had turned to gloomy resignation by the time the half time whistle went with Italy struggling to match a slick-looking Spain side that was already two goals up.
"We just didn't play, there wasn't a match," said Gianluca Malgli, reflecting the feeling of many fans stunned by the inability of the Azzuri to get into the match.
Any chance of a second-half comeback evaporated with an injury to Thiago Motta, who limped off on the hour mark after coach Cesare Prandelli had used all three substitutes, leaving Italy a man down.
Prandelli's side had been given little chance of advancing to the final but the victory over Germany, fueled by an inspired performance by striker Mario Balotelli had filled the country with confidence.
Prime Minister Mario Monti, who was in Kiev for the match just days after helping to hammer out a deal in Brussels with European partners to help shore up Italy's battered public finances, said he had congratulated the disappointed squad which he said had made Italy proud.
"They are a little depressed but that happens in the lives of individuals and great teams and countries but we Italians have the capacity to overcome moments of difficulty and it's a great sporting and human performance to come second in Europe," he told SkyTG24 television.
Back home, there was a stark contrast to the delirious scenes on Thursday when supporters waving flags from scooters had zipped through the traffic while horns honked and fans yelled their delight from car windows.
"It just shouldn't have finished like this. I hoped and hoped and waved my flag, but it counted for nothing" said Federico Izzo as he left the arena with friends.
Despite the disappointment, Monti was not the only one who tried to look on the bright side after a tournament that went some way towards restoring Italian pride after a disappointing 2010 World Cup and a betting scandal that has cast a shadow over the domestic championship.
"We are happy we got this far, it is fine," said Antonio Gianpaolo as he went home. (Writing By James Mackenzie; additional reporting by Barry Moody; editing by Patrick Graham)