The sight of a weeping Chinese girl seeking solace with her companion after her team's 3:2 defeat to Germany in Tilburg was poignant.
But, despite the heartbreaking narrow loss, the round of 16 of the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005 unquestionably represented the climax for the fanatical Chinese supporters at the Willem II Stadium and also those who waited up past midnight in China to watch the much-anticipated encounter.
For them - probably the largest group of football fans in the world - and the countless Chinese media, China's three straight group victories and the anguishing elimination have posed many questions about how best to develop the game from here.
China's run at Netherlands 2005 sparked immense attention and interest throughout the world's most populous nation. "Can you imagine, the television audience reached about 50 million?" Zhang Bin, football commentator from China Central Television, told FIFA.com after the China-Germany clash.
Even if this is not the biggest audience for a single football match, it was still incredible given that it was a youth tournament fixture. Zhang added: "We had 10 million audience for each match in the group stage and the number grew by five times for the Germany game."
This tournament also provided a boom for other forms of Chinese media, with print press and websites benefiting from greater circulations and increased page-views thanks to the team's sparkling performances. Fang Zhao, football writer of sohu.com, said: "We launched a pro-coach (Eckhard) Krautzun campaign on our website and in just a few days we had 15,000 fans who signed and left comments."
China pulled off two memorable victories over European heavyweights Turkey and Ukraine, displaying their offensive power, silky passing and fine organisation. This was the third time that China have reached the second stage of FIFA World Youth Championship, but the first time they advanced as dominant group winners.
China's largest newspaper, People's Daily, commented: "That the team have made so much improvement in the months under German coach Krautzun that it shows we should stick to the policy of experienced foreign coaches from football powers, just as we have exported a lot of table-tennis coaches to other countries."
An article from Sports Weekly is similarly focused: "It proves almost the only suitable way is for China to follow the styles of European football, which has the most advanced system and best professionalism."
Finding fighting spirit
China, for so long the under-achievers of Asia, used to attribute their defeats to a weaker mentality, but China's Xinhua News Agency reported: "We were as mentally strong as the Germans throughout the 90 minutes but we lost in the final minute. On the pitch, only our strengths and quality spoke volumes."
Constructive criticism pointed to the team's technical and tactical problems. Sports newspaper Competition reported: "We are strong at organisation, but obviously the team lacks a leader who can be a match-winner and inspire the side on in times of difficulties… somebody like Oleksandr Aliiev of Ukraine or Silva of Spain."
An in-depth analysis by Soccer newspaper urges these ups-and-comers not to repeat the mistakes of some former Chinese wunderkinds, who have impressed in the FIFA World Youth Championship, but failed to live up to expectations.
"Stars need a good environment to develop," it warns.