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Jul 2, 2012

Spain's champs return home

MADRID -- Swathed in the red-and-yellow colors of Spain, hundreds of thousands packed central Madrid to give a hero's welcome Monday to "La Roja" -- the national soccer team that erased the country's gloomy mood by winning the Euro 2012 Championship with such flair.

With the celebrated team back home on native soil, it was time to party for a second straight night.

King Juan Carlos and members of the royal family congratulated players at the Zarzuela Palace outside Madrid within hours of their returning from Kiev, where they crushed Italy 4-0 to defend their title Sunday night. The Iberia plane that brought them to the Spanish capital bore the logo "proud of our national team."

Team captain and goalie Iker Casillas proudly held the tournament cup as he emerged from the plane in Madrid with coach Vicente del Bosque.

In the palace gardens, the king, Prince Felipe, his wife, Princess Letizia, and one of the king's two daughters, Princess Elena, chatted and laughed with the players while two of the monarch's grandchildren gazed at and touched the cup.

"Congratulations on behalf of the family and the whole of Spain," the king said. "You have made the entire country happy."

In town, a multitude jammed the paths and roads along a near 3-mile route chanting "Champions, champions Ole, Ole, Ole!"

Blowing horns, they put up with a baking evening sun to catch a glimpse of their heroes as they paraded by on an open-air bus ride for a victory rally in the central Cibeles plaza. The players were escorted by police on horseback and motorbikes. Thousands more fans cheered on from apartment balconies.

The players danced and sang, raised the trophy and sprayed sparkling wine on the screaming, flag-waving crowds below as the bus crawled along at a snail's pace.

In Cibeles plaza, organizers sprayed the crowds with water hoses to help them keep cool as they awaited the team's arrival.

The team's elegant performance in the Euro 2012 final raised spirits across a country drowning in financial woes and rampant unemployment. It also made them the first team ever to bookend a World Cup championship (2010) with two Euro Cup triumphs (2008, 2012).

"This is historic and I'm here to support the team. They just might be able to do it again so we can win the (2014 World Cup) in Brazil," said Jose Luis Clemente, 47, a bus inspector clad in the team jersey. "It's a rare positive point against such a terrible crisis in my country. It gives you some relief."

Still, he was realistic.

"No football win is going to solve the crisis. That's work for the economists and the politicians," he added.

The victory even had some Spaniards offering a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: Why not have the players run the country instead of Spain's feckless politicians?

In one newspaper cartoon, del Bosque is surrounded by Casillas and other stars such as Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, who are all dressed up in suits for a new line of work.

"The solution to our problems: the government of prime minister del Bosque and his ministers," read the vignette in El Mundo.

As the country recovered from a national hangover of elation, pride and booze, Spaniards soaked up sweet memories of a night no one will forget. For a few hours, the realities of 25 percent unemployment, a grinding recession and a banking bailout from the European Union to the tune of up to $125 billion were put aside.

"No team has ever done what they have done, and it helps you to stop thinking about the crisis for 90 minutes during the game and the next day for the party," said Carlo del Pino, 25, a university student.

Del Pino said he hopes to teach physical education and coach one day but prospects are grim for graduates now with cutbacks in education funding, teacher pay cuts and layoffs of temporary teachers.

"I don't know where I will be working when I graduate, whether it's in Spain, Portugal or some other country," he said. "But all the Spanish kids who are here cheering the team may want to do sports because of the victory, so that could help me."

Retired air force officer Ramon Ramirez, 76, looked a bit out of place, dressed smartly in a long sleeve formal shirt and pressed jeans amid a sea of folks decked out in red and yellow as he waited for the team to pass.

"For Spain, the headlines around the world have finally changed to good instead of the bad we've seen for months. Let's hope it continues," he said.

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