MADRID - Swathed in the red-and-yellow colors of Spain, tens of thousands packed central Madrid yesterday to give a hero's welcome 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 members of the royal family congratulated players at the Zarzuela Palace 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 Madrid 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, his wife, Princess Letizia, and one of the king's two daughters, Princess Elena, chatted and laughed with the players while two of the monarch's grandchildren gazed and touched the cup.
Some distance away, a multitude took up places along a 5-kilometer route chanting "Champions, champions!" Blowing horns, they waited in the baking sun to catch a glimpse of their heroes who were to parade in an open air bus ride through the city for a victory rally in the central Cibeles plaza.
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 them run the country instead of Spain's feckless politicians?
In one newspaper cartoon, del Bosque is surrounded by Casillas and other stars like Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, who are all dressed up in suits for a new line of work.
"The solution to our problems: the government of prime minister Del Bosque and his ministers," read the vignette in El Mundo.
As the country recovered from a national hangover of elation, pride and booze, Spaniards soaked up sweet memories of a night no one will forget. For a few hours, the realities of 25 percent unemployment, a grinding recession and a banking bailout from the European Union to the tune of up to $125 billion were put aside.
Maria Jose Herraiz, a 54-year-old homemaker, was so nervous she had to listen to the game on the radio instead of watching it on TV.
"When I heard people scream 'Goal!' I would run to the TV," she said.
She called the victory marvelous, a potent shot of mood-boosting adrenalin for people sorely in need of it, but said reality would come back soon.
"It will be a sort of flower that blooms for just one day, because economic problems do not go away just because Spain wins," Herraiz said.
Her two adult children - aged 26 and 28 - are both still living at home. They are struggling on rock-bottom salaries as low as $377 a month for half-day work despite being a computer scientist and a physicist.
Still, for one night, they came home just before dawn after a rousing celebration, their faces painted in red and yellow.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now