- Associated Press - Monday, July 2, 2012

MADRID (AP) — 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 other 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; Princess Letizia, Felipe’s wife; and one of the king’s two daughters, Infanta 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 three-mile route and chanted, “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 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.

At the 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?

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