Jul 12, 2010 4:18 PM by Melissa Canone
MADRID (AP) - Spain erupted with its biggest fiesta in memory
Monday when its football team returned to a jubilant nation after
winning the World Cup, giving elated Spaniards a break from months
of economic gloom and political squabbling as nationalist regions
fought for greater autonomy from the central government.
Hundreds of thousands of people - if not more - jammed Madrid's
historic avenues as an open air bus ferried the national team down
stately avenues to cheers from Spaniards decked out in a sea of red
and yellow, the colors of the Spanish flag.
The celebration in Madrid, where national unity is at its
strongest, was expected. But there were striking examples of
support from unlikely places: The well-off Catalonia region, which
has long sought greater autonomy, and the separatist Basque region,
where anything pro-Spain is often shunned.
The massive Madrid street party came after players visited
Madrid's Royal Palace, normally used only for dreary state affairs.
But team chatted and drinks with King Juan Carlos, who hugged many
players and gave coach Vicente del Bosque friendly punches on the
cheek and the chest.
"You are an example of sportsmanship, nobility, good play and
team work," said the king.
Team members then traveled to government headquarters, where
they were greeted by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero,
ministers and hundreds of ecstatic children invited to the event.
"They won the cup but it belongs to all Spaniards," shouted a
Next came an open-air bus ride through Madrid's historic center,
the epicenter of the celebration for the second day in a row.
Crowds overflowed into the street and surrounded the team bus,
virtually all sporting the red and yellow national colors along the
five-kilometer (three-mile) route as the bus crawled through the
crowd with the players waving and raising the gold World Cup trophy
into the air.
At the route's end, firefighters hosed down fans sweltering in
36 Celsius (96 Fahrenheit) evening heat.
The party started when the players' plane touched down, flying
Spanish flags from its cockpit windows, with dozens of airport
workers cheering from the runway. It taxied to a stop as cars
driving by on nearby highways blared their horns in support.
A roar of approval rose as team captain and goalkeeper Iker
Casillas stepped from the plane and raised the trophy. The crowd
chanted "Campeones! Campeones!" (Champions! Champions!). Then the
players in their team jerseys walked from the plane to a waiting
Spanish football federation bus without commenting to journalists.
The spectacle was "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
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
following near economic chaos when the country was targeted as one
of the European nations most likely to default on debt like Greece?
Spain has been depressed by a debt crisis, 20 percent
unemployment and nationalist regions fighting to separate from the
country or at least win much greater autonomy and near-nation
While the spotlight was on Madrid, the win led to a rare sight
in the Catalonia region's capital of Barcelona: Spanish flags
waving side-by-side with Catalonia's 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. "If
it weren't for football, you might get rocks thrown at you" for
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 the separatist group ETA since 1968
to gain independence from Spain.
Just wearing the jersey on the streets of Bilbao before the win
was a sure way to get insulted and risk assault.
But experts said the idea of Spain overcoming its internal
divisions and economic woes because of the World Cup is unlikely to
become reality. In and around Bilbao, authorities blamed sabotage
for an electrical outage that canceled 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,"
Joan Foguet, a Barcelona-based journalist for the leading
Spanish newspaper El Pais, said Catalonia has a "schizophrenic"
relationship with the national team - and attributed the burst of
enthusiasm to the fact that the team played well.
NGO worker Elisenda Siguerola felt some people were playing up
the Spain unity theme.
"One thing is football and another is politics," said
Siguerola, "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.
Other Basques, like 29-year-old Aitor Elexpuru, said Spanish
politicians against greater Basque autonomy would use the win for
"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 victory, however, brought at least some Spaniards from
diverse backgrounds together, meaning it 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
During the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco (1939-1975),
Catalans, Basques and others were forbidden from speaking their
languages and it was illegal to publish books in those languages.
Spain did not change its flag after become a democracy.