MADRID - Spain erupted with its biggest fiesta in memory Monday when its soccer team returned to a jubilant nation after winning the World Cup, giving elated Spaniards a break from months of economic gloom and political squabbling.
Hundreds of thousands - 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 massive street party came after players visited King Juan Carlos at the Royal Palace and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at government headquarters.
"They won the cup, but it belongs to all Spaniards," shouted a delighted Zapatero.
Goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas said the win meant "Spain's name will be on top of the world for the next four years."
Overflowing crowds surrounded the team bus on its open-air ride through Madrid's historic center, with the fans virtually all wearing red and yellow along the 3-mile route. Players waved and raised the gold World Cup trophy into the air.
"For us Spaniards, this is important. It is a way of showing that Spain is united," said Roberto Lopez, 48, a Madrid car salesman. "It's not Galicia on one side and Catalonia on the other."
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.
Indeed, the win led to a rare sight in the Catalonia region's capital, 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, 31, a 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 celebrated in Barcelona, and about 2,000 people waved Spanish flags and wore the team's 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.
"I think the celebrations in the Basque region should be seen as normal and will improve relations between the region and Spain," said Alejandro Munoz, 48, of Bilbao.
DUTCH DOWNER: Two fighter jets, one of them orange, escorted the Netherlands team home to Amsterdam.
A series of welcome-home events await today, including a meeting with Queen Beatrix at her palace in The Hague. The events might help players and fans shake off the country's third loss in a Cup final.
Among the headlines in Dutch newspapers was "Not Again" above pictures of dejected players after the final whistle.
The Algemeen Dagblad daily's headline was "Orange tears."
Meanwhile, Dutch legend Johan Cruyff criticized the Netherlands for its aggressive play in the final. In his column for Barcelona daily El Periodico, Cruyff says the Dutch "didn't want the ball. And, lamentably and sadly, they played very dirty."
RATINGS: Television viewership rose 41 percent over 2006 for English-language telecasts in the United States, with Sunday setting a record for a men's soccer game, according to Nielsen. The final was seen by 15,545,000 viewers on ABC, according to fast national ratings. That beat the 14,863,000 for the United States' 2-1 overtime loss to Ghana in the second round June 26. An additional 8,821,000 million watched Spanish-language coverage Sunday on Univision.
BIG CROWDS: Overall attendance at the tournament was the third highest ever, behind 1994 (United States) and 2006 (Germany). FIFA said 3.18 million attended the 64 matches in South Africa, an average of 49,670. The 1994 event in America (3.59 million) still holds the record though there were only 24 teams involved then.