MADRID - 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.

Hundreds of thousands of people 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 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.

A roar of approval rose as goalkeeper and captain 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 bus without commenting to journalists.

The massive Madrid street party came after players visited the Royal Palace, where the team chatted and had 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 teamwork," the king said.

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," a delighted Zapatero shouted.

Goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas said the victory meant "Spain's name will be on top of the world for the next four years." 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 5-kilometer route as the bus crawled through the crowd with the players waving and raising the gold World Cup trophy into the air.

Casillas raised a red and yellow carton cutout of Octopus Paul, the mollusk from the German zoo that predicted Spain's victory.

"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."

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, 42, a photographer from Madrid.- AP

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