Euros Champs Get Hero's Welcome

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Spain's victorious team returned home yesterday to a country already celebrating its first major soccer title in 44 years.

Captain Iker Casillas and Coach Luis Aragonés were the first off the plane, which touched down at Madrid's Barajas International Airport and was inscribed with the word "campeones" (champions). Casillas and Aragonés each had a hand on the trophy as they emerged. Casillas then handed it to the 69-year-old coach for a lift.

"I'm a man who doesn't show great emotions . . . but listening to the players, I'm feeling emotional today," Aragonés said.

The players spent the plane ride singing. Though most still hadn't slept, they cracked into beers while waiting for an open-top bus to take them to thousands of fans downtown Madrid.

The 1-0 victory over Germany in the European Championship final in Austria was hailed by the prime minister as not just a breakthrough for soccer but for the nation as well.

"It is right that a football victory on this level strengthens the unity in a country," Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said during a visit to Denmark. "It is the first time we, as a democratic nation, have won a title."

Spain's previous European title came in 1964, when the country was a fascist dictatorship under Gen. Francisco Franco.

With Spain having shed its tag as a perennial soccer underachiever, there was an outpouring of exultation across the country.

"It's no longer a dream, it's a reality: We're champions!" the daily Marca said on its front page, which featured a photo of Casillas hoisting the trophy.

The team went unbeaten with a string of beguiling attacking displays orchestrated by a vibrant midfield. Spain defeated Sweden, defending champion Greece, World Cup champion Italy and Russia twice en route to the title.

After the late-night celebrations, a 40-year-old man wearing a red Spain jersey was found dead in Madrid. He suffered head injuries apparently from a fall, media reports said. There were 52 arrests.

-- From News Services

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