German fans will be conspicuous by their presence in Kiev on Sunday as Spain and surprise guests Italy take centre stage. Paul Radley reports from Kiev.
Euro 2012: Invitation only to celebrate at Kiev's biggest party
There is likely to be a substantial German presence at Sunday night's European Championship final in Ukraine's capital city. The ghosts at the feast, however, will be the players of their highly fancied national team.
The massive fan zone in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev's Independence Square, was teeming with German supporters on Thursday night.
Attracted to the city's centre early by the prospect of a music concert, followed by a pushover last-four meeting with Italy on the big screens, the fans had arrived with an air of inevitable finalists.
It felt like they were just keeping their seats warm ahead of the main event.
They had the local vote, too. Once their own national team, as well as Poland and Russia, exited at the group stage, the majority of Ukrainian supporters switched their allegiance to Germany.
They all left shell-shocked. As Mario Balotelli, the Italian match-winner, systematically extinguished their side's chances of booking another trip across the Polish border to Ukraine, the crowd in central Kiev was silenced.
Disbelief was a sentiment shared by fans and players alike as Germany's vaunted "Golden Generation" had missed out again. They are still without a major tournament success since Euro 96 in England.
"Every defeat is bitter, we could have been in the tournament right to the end, we didn't manage it and that is very, very bitter," Philipp Lahm, Germany's captain, said in a televised interview.
"Of course we have a lot of potential, but if you can't show your potential at the right time and in certain situations you are not clever enough, then you lose a game like this."
Kiev has become something of a shrine to sides who have fallen by the wayside. Just along Khreschatyk Street from Independence Square a stall going by the name of "Sweden Corner" is still doing good trade, even though the Swedes went home over a week ago.
And now it is the Germans who are present in spirit but absent in body.
The fact the national team would be here for the final had seemed to be a sure thing, but they have a blind-spot against Italy in major tournaments.
"The Italians are very experienced in terms of the system they play and it is very hard to play against them," said Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Germany midfielder.
The Spanish are already here, booked in and ready to go. Like their team, the supporters have had an extra day to prepare for the final than their Italian counterparts.
Most of it was probably spent traversing Ukraine from Donetsk, where their team played the semi-final against Portugal, either via an interminable road trip, seven hours on one of the smart new Korean express trains, or on one of the few available flights.
For both players and supporters, tomorrow's final is likely to be a case of the last man standing wins following the logistical challenges of this tournament.
The fact Italy played their semi-final a day later than Spain meant they were unable to bask in the glory of their success over the Germans for long.
Having 24 hours less preparation time is likely to matter little, though. Each of the finalists had two days less between their quarter-final matches and their last-four matches than their respective opponents, yet still succeeded.
In Italy's case, they are being swept along by the euphoria of it all. "We have no time to celebrate, just concentrate on the next game which is the biggest," Cesare Prandelli, Italy's manager, said in the press conference after Thursday's 2-1 win. "When you dream, you only dream big - so this is the beginning. Spain are a terrific side, but we will prepare very well like we did [for the match against Germany]. I think it will be an open game and we'll start on a level footing in that respect."
Balotelli, the enigmatic scorer of the decisive goals against Germany, agreed with his manager that his side are deserving finalists. The Manchester City striker says Italy have nothing to fear against their old rivals.
"With Spain we are the two best teams in the tournament," Balotelli said in a television interview.
"Spain play a different game to Germany, but we know just how good we are and we can be a match for anyone, quite frankly."
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