WELLINGTON, New Zealand (CBS/AP) — New Zealanders have started to question whether their team’s loss in the America’s Cup marks the end of the country’s 26-year involvement in competing for sailing’s oldest trophy.

Team USA’s 44-second win on Wednesday afternoon in San Francisco capped a historic come-from-behind victory which saw Team New Zealand lose 9-8 after leading 8-1.

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New Zealanders had seen its sailors move within one win of an overall victory in the first week of the finals series, then watched with growing anguish over the next seven days as Team USA rallied to retain the Cup with eight consecutive wins.

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Tens of thousands gathered at yacht clubs, bars and cafes around New Zealand again on Thursday morning to watch what seemed to many to be the last act in a slow-moving horror story as their hopes of winning the Cup for a third time sputtered and died.

The final race screened at 8.15 a.m. New Zealand time, lasting around 25 minutes, at the end of which fans, whose numbers had swelled steadily through the finals series, made their way to work or to school in a mood of numbed disappointment.

A national debate has already begun about New Zealand’s future in the America’s Cup and whether this nation of 4.5 million can find both the ambition and the resources, financial or otherwise, to challenge again for the “Auld Mug.”

Team New Zealand relied on a $36 million contribution from the New Zealand government on top of a collection of sponsorships to mount its latest challenge.

Surveys showed that at the height of the regatta in San Francisco, as Team New Zealand edged closer to victory, a majority of New Zealanders favored further government funding in the expectation of a major economic boost from a Cup defense in Auckland.

But as defeat became more imminent, support for a further injection of taxpayer funds dwindled and the New Zealand’s current, center-right government will now question whether, in a time of relative austerity, further funding would be warranted — or popular.

Prime Minister John Key, who watched the final race from New York where he is attending the general assembly of the United Nations and called it “gut-wrenching,” said “there’s a lot of things you have to consider before you put taxpayers’ money on the line.

“It’s too early to have those discussions today,” he said. “(Team New Zealand) I am sure will want to regroup, think about what their next steps are and we will want to sit down and have a discussion with them.”

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Team New Zealand first challenged for the America’s Cup off Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1987, causing immediate ripples in what had been an insular Cup community by designing and racing the world’s first fiberglass 12-meter yacht.

They reached the finals of the challenger series before losing to the eventual winner, American Cup legend Dennis Conner. After failing in 1992, New Zealand won the Cup for the first time off San Diego in 1995, in a yacht helmed by Russell Coutts.

Coutts was again helmsman when New Zealand defended the trophy in Auckland in 2000, becoming the first team outside the United States to do so. But he left Team New Zealand immediately after that regatta and returned in 2003 to win the Cup for the third-straight time as helmsman for the Swiss syndicate Alinghi.

Coutts then joined Oracle Team USA and won the trophy from Alinghi in 2010.

Grant Dalton, who succeeded Coutts as head of Team New Zealand, has already indicated he is unlikely to continue and it now seems likely that Team New Zealand, whose sailing team in San Francisco was much older than Team USA’s, might drift apart.

Andy Anderson, the vice-commodore of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, which has been the official yacht club of Team New Zealand since it was formed, acknowledged the team’s future is uncertain.

“It’s a very big task (to challenge again),” he said. “We’ll certainly need the sponsors and people to back it who are real believers.”

Anderson said New Zealanders could at least take heart that Coutts’ involvement meant there was a Kiwi behind Team USA and that both boats were built in New Zealand.

But Jenny de Lisle, who watched the race at the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club in Wellington, spoke for more rueful New Zealanders who watched for a week while its team was one win away from victory.

“I feel sorry for the guys,” she said. “Today they sailed a great race and did everything they could. It’s been tough … like a bad dream.”

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