Spain celebrates World Cup heroes' return

Spain's soccer team returned home to a huge fiesta in Madrid after winning the FIFA World Cup, giving Spaniards a break from the troubles in their fractured country.

Spain's soccer team returned to a jubilant nation Monday after winning the FIFA World Cup, giving Spaniards a break from months of economic gloom, political squabbling and regions fighting to break away from the central government.

The team was received by King Juan Carlos and was heading later to meet Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero before embarking on an open-air bus ride through Madrid's historic centre, the epicentre of the celebration party for the second day in a row.

There were striking examples of cheering for Spain from unlikely places: The well-off Catalonia region that has long sought greater autonomy, and the separatist Basque region where anything pro-Spain is often shunned.

At least several hundred thousand fans were expected to line Madrid's streets to celebrate Spain's first World Cup title, after the team beat the Netherlands 1-0 on Sunday in extra time.

Dozens of airport workers cheered from the runway as the plane, flying Spanish flags from cockpit windows, taxied to a stop while car horns could be heard honking in the distance.

A special slogan printed along the fuselage of the Iberia plane read, "Proud of our National Team. Champions."

A roar of delight rose as team captain and goalkeeper Iker Casillas stepped from the plane and raised the World Cup.

The crowd broke into chanting "Campeones, Campeones," meaning "champions." The players, wearing the team jerseys, walked from the plane to a waiting Spanish football federation bus.

'Helps us forget a lot of things'

"It's very important, it helps us forget a lot of things, like the economic crisis, for example, or people's domestic issues," said Javier Sanchez, a 42-year-old photographer from Madrid.

But will the ecstasy last — could this be Spain's moment to unite under a single flag, or is it a fleeting instance of patriotism?

The country has been depressed by a debt crisis, 20 per cent unemployment and nationalist regions fighting to separate from Spain or at least win the right for much greater autonomy and near-nation status.

While the spotlight will be on Madrid when the team is cheered, the win led to a rare sight in Catalonia's regional capital of Barcelona: Spanish flags waving side-by-side with Catalonia's very own red and yellow flag.

"It has been very strange, but now it is being tolerated," said Saray Lozano, a 31-year-old taxi driver from Barcelona who was happy for Spain's win. "If it weren't for football, you might get rocks thrown at you" for publicly displaying Spain's national symbol.

About 75,000 people celebrated the win in Barcelona, and about 2,000 people waved Spanish flags and wore the team's football jersey in the Basque city of Bilbao — actions rarely seen because of the violent campaign led by separatist group ETA since 1968 to gain independence from Spain.

Just wearing the jersey on the streets of Bilbao ahead of the win was a sure way to get insulted, and risk being assaulted.

But experts said the idea of Spain overcoming its internal divisions and economic woes just because of the World Cup won't likely turn into reality.

Sabotage blamed for power outage

In and around Bilbao, authorities blamed sabotage for an electrical outage that cancelled an open air broadcast of the final game, and several people supporting the national team were attacked by separatists.

"I wouldn't have thought the euphoria over the football will last very long," said Paul Preston, a Spain expert and history professor at the London School of Economics.

As for Spain's fragile economy, the win "may soften the blow of the economic news, but it won't have a long-lasting effect," Preston said.

Joan Foguet, a Barcelona-based journalist for the leading Spanish newspaper El Pais, noted that Catalonia has a "schizophrenic" relationship with the national team — and attributed the burst of enthusiasm to the fact that the team played well.

While media may play up the Spain unity theme, he said, "one thing is football and another is politics, even though politicians try to mix the two."

Contributing to enthusiasm from unlikely places was the fact that several of Spain's best players are from Catalonia — Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique. The team also included superstar Xabi Alonso, from the Basque region.

In Bilbao, Alejandro Munoz said his daughter was wearing a Spanish national team jersey on Monday, but noted that "she also has a Basque one."

"I think the celebrations in the Basque region should be seen as normal and will improve relations between the region and Spain," said Munoz, 48.

Diverse backgrounds

Other Basques, like 29-year-old Aitor Elexpuru, said Spanish politicians against greater Basque autonomy would use the win for political purposes.

"A lot people wanted Spain to win so they could show the Spanish jersey and flag to those of us who don't feel Spanish," he said. "They wanted Spain to win, but not for football."

The win, however, brought at least some Spaniards from diverse backgrounds together, meaning the win accomplished "unfinished business for Spain, so it's been good for everyone," said Soledad Gonzalez, 51, a security guard from Madrid.

She added: "I hope that, God willing, finally, the Spanish flag means being Spanish and not being a fascist, as was the case not so long ago."

During the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco (1939-1975), Catalans, Basques and others were forbidden from speaking their language and it was illegal to publish books in those languages. Spain did not change its flag after become a democracy.