Jubilant Rome welcomes triumphant Azzurri home
ROME, July 10 (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Italians gathered on Monday in Circus Maximus, one of ancient Rome's most famous stadiums, to fete their own conqering heroes after the national soccer team's World Cup victory in Germany.
A deafening roar, fireworks and a sea of flags greeted the team's open-topped bus when, at almost 11:00 pm (2100 GMT), it finally entered the vast rectangular arena that used to house chariot races.
The crowd had been building since late afternoon after the team returned home from a triumph that took minds off the imminent outcome of a match-fixing trial.
The mayor's office estimated the crowd at 600,000, with hundreds of thousands more who accompanied the bus in its snail's paced progress from a reception at Prime Minister Romano Prodi's residence a few kilometres way.
The revelers had prepared for the party by parading an ornate funeral hearse carrying a coffin covered by a French flag to symbolise Italy's victory in Sunday's final.
Team coach Marcello Lippi and his players clambered onto a stage and raised the golden Cup one by one as loudspeakers blared out Italy's national anthem and rock group Queen's modern-day sporting anthem, 'We are the Champions.'
On a hot night under a full moon the team danced and sang along with abandon for about 40 minutes, led by Juventus striker Alessandro Del Piero who stripped to the waist.
At a more sober ceremony in the afternoon Prodi had greeted the players in a packed square outside his official residence and raised the Cup alongside Lippi and captain Fabio Cannavaro, one of the tournament's outstanding performers.
'Thank you for restoring to our national soccer, hit by an unprecedented storm, the dignity it deserves,' Prodi told the players, who were presented to the crowd and awarded individual medals.
Earlier the pilot of the team's plane hung an Italian flag out of the cockpit window as it landed at a military airport south of Rome before Cannavaro and Lippi emerged to cheers from the waiting fans.
'I don't know if we are in seventh heaven or sixth heaven but we are pretty high up there,' Lippi told Italian television aboard the plane.
In a sombre reflection that may have alluded to the match-fixing scandal currently before an Italian court, he said: 'We're happy for a little while, not for long but for a little while.'
Federica Cotticelli, 19, was among the thousands waiting on the tarmac below, draped in the Italian flag. 'We came because we're only in our 20s and didn't see the World Cup in 1982. For us, this is the first one that counts,' she said.
Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano announced he would be formally honouring the squad by making them members of the 'merit order of the republic'.
Italy's penalty shootout win over France has become an instant source of pride for a country marred by scandals in recent years, from corruption trials of ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to a multibillion-euro fraud at food group Parmalat.
But even as the celebrations hit high gear, the supporters of four of Italy's elite clubs were turning their attention to a sports tribunal in Rome which is set to announce its verdict in the match-fixing trial.
Many fans of Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio are hoping the World Cup exhilaration might soften the punishments the tribunal is expected to announce, possibly on Tuesday.
Eight Juventus players performed in Sunday's final, five for Italy and three for France, and the club's supporters are aghast at the prospect that their stars could be thrown out of Italian soccer's top flight or quit the club to avoid such a fate.
In his brief speech with the players in Rome, Prodi seemed to rule out an amnesty for the alleged offences. 'Soccer must have its great clean-up,' he said.
A sports prosecutor has recommended Juventus be relegated to at least the third division, the annulment of the club's last two Italian titles and a deduction of points at the start of next season.
He has recommended the other clubs should be sent to the second division, also with points deducted. The clubs have denied the charges.
Shortly before the Italian team's plane arrived, Juventus announced that Didier Deschamps would replace coach Fabio Capello, who left for Real Madrid last week.