First-time World Cup winners return to grand welcome in Madrid; thousands take to the streets to cheer nation's heroes

Spain erupted in wild celebrations on Sunday after the national football team won its first World Cup following Andrés Iniesta's extra-time goal in a 1-0 victory over the Netherlands.

“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.

An estimated 3 lakh people formed a sea of red and yellow to pack Madrid's downtown Paseo de Recoletos boulevard to watch the final from Johannesburg on giant screens and celebrated at the final whistle as Spain became the world and European champions.

The celebrations were easily the biggest ever held in living memory in Spain. Fireworks lit up the city sky as people herded out onto the streets. Television shots showed exuberant partying in jammed town squares across the country, from Zaragoza in the northeast to Seville in the southwest.

Spain — long tagged a perennial underachiever before winning the 2008 European Championship to end a 44-year title drought — had never before gone past the quarterfinals. The team finished fourth at the 1950 World Cup when the playoff system was different.

Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose poll numbers have dropped due to the country's economic woes, said he celebrated the win with some Catalan sparkling wine. It was a fitting toast for a team with so many players from his favourite club, Barcelona.

A deafening roar rose from Madrid, including the sound of the blaring vuvuzela horns imported from South Africa and shouts of ‘Viva España,' when captain and goalkeeper Íker Casillas lifted the World Cup trophy at Soccer City.

One banner amid the masses in downtown Madrid read “Octopus Paul, Forever!” with a crudely drawn picture of the octopus from Germany, who had forecast Spain's victory.

Traffic jams emerged spontaneously throughout the city as motorists took to the streets, honking their horns and waving Spain's yellow and red flag from windows.

Television images even showed hordes of people waving Spanish flags in Barcelona, where more than 1.1 million people protested on Saturday against a court ruling that their autonomous Catalonia region, home to many separatists demanding a breakaway nation, must remain a part of Spain.

The night sky of Alcorcón, a working class neighbourhood of Madrid, was lit up by fireworks and the bar patrons toasted each other with beer and sangria on a sweltering summer night, dancing in the streets and dodging firecrackers tossed by other fans.

Police helicopters hovered over Madrid into the early hours and riot police protected major monuments.

The victory dominated the country's media, with newspapers paying tribute to the first Spanish team to claim football's most prestigious trophy and television stations replaying Iniesta's winning goal over and over.

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