MADRID: Spain gave its football team a heroes` welcome Monday as their World Cup triumph over the Netherlands inspired a red and gold fiesta after years of dashed hopes.
As the South African hosts prided themselves for defying pessimistic predictions, up to a million people were expected to line the streets of Madrid for an evening victory parade to cap off their sporting fairytale.
A huge cheer erupted from a crowd gathered at Madrid airport when keeper Iker Casillas emerged from the squad`s plane with coach Vicente del Bosque and held aloft the golden trophy.
The team were to meet Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero before taking an open top bus through the capital in a moment of pure joy for a country hit by spiralling unemployment and a stuttering economy.
The party had begun immediately after Barcelona`s Andres Iniesta scored the final`s only goal late on Sunday, three minutes before the end of extra time after a match watched by an estimated 700 million people worldwide.
"Iniesta Presidente! Iniesta Presidente!" chanted one group of fans as they marched along the centre of the Gran Via, Madrid`s main thoroughfare in the early hours.
Others imitated bullfighters and waved Spanish flags over passing cars while chanting "Ole!" to celebrate Spain`s first win World Cup triumph, garnering record Spanish viewing figures.
Zapatero said he had "suffered like never before" as he watched the game in Johannesburg`s Soccer City staudium.
The victory came exactly a week after Spain`s Rafael Nadal lifted the Wimbledon tennis trophy and caps a series of major sporting achievements, including a European title for the nation`s basketball team.
The victories have brought a sliver of happiness to a country where around 20 percent of the active population is jobless and the economy is forecast to contract by 0.3 percent over 2010 as a whole.
While Zapatero`s Socialist administration is keeping its fingers crossed that the feel-good factor will linger, the South African government is also hoping the tournament will bring long-term benefits.
Ever since it became the first African nation to win the right to stage the world`s biggest sporting event, South Africa has had to fend off accusations that rampant crime and lack of infrastructure made it an unsuitable choice.
While there were armed robberies of journalists and thefts from team hotels, a massive police deployment helped ensure the nightmare vision of fans being gunned down did not come to pass.
The crowning glory for the organisers came on Sunday night when South Africa`s first black president, the now 91-year-old Nelson Mandela, rode onto the field in a golf cart, bringing rapturous cheers.
President Jacob Zuma said the World Cup brought "priceless" benefits for attracting South Africans of all races into the stands. He said South Africa could now think about staging the Olympics.
But while the World Cup was marked by a show of unity, massive challenges now lurk in a country still struggling to bridge a racial divide some 16 years after the end of apartheid and a gaping chasm between rich and poor.
In a sign of the tensions bubbling below the surface, immigrants fearing anti-foreigner attacks sought refuge in several South African police stations in Cape Town and surrounding areas on Monday after looting at the weekend.
"The challenge, now, is to ensure that the infrastructure that has been developed, particularly the transport infrastructure, benefits all South Africans, especially the poor," the Nobel Prize-winning archbishop Desmond Tutu said.
The Dutch won over few neutrals on Sunday with their sometimes brutal approach towards their opponents. Centreback Johnny Heitinga was sent off and seven other players booked by English referee Howard Webb.
The team however will be given a warm welcome on their return home with a parade along the canals of Amsterdam planned for Tuesday and a reception with Queen Beatrix.
"We have to be very proud of the team. They had us in raptures for a month," Crown Prince Willem-Alexander told Dutch television.
"They will get the tribute next Tuesday that they deserve (in Amsterdam), and we will all see that it is also quite special to have come second here in South Africa."
The end of the tournament was marred meanwhile by bomb attacks on crowds watching the World Cup final at two restuarants in the Ugandan capital Kampala which killed 74 people.
Ugandan authorities blamed Somali Islamist militants.
BDST: 2014hrs, July 12, 2010