Fiesta time: Spain World Cup team promotes unity in fractured nation best by economic gloom

By Alan Clendenning, AP
Monday, July 12, 2010

World Cup winners arrive home in Spain for fiesta

MADRID — Spain’s football team returned home to a jubilant nation and a huge fiesta Monday after winning the World Cup, finally giving Spaniards a break from months of economic gloom, political squabbling and nationalist regions fighting to break away from the central government.

The celebrations for the team will include a meeting with the king and prime minister and an open-air bus ride through Madrid’s historic center.

At least several hundred thousand fans were expected to line the streets to celebrate Spain’s first World Cup title. Spain beat the Netherlands 1-0 on Sunday in extra time.

Dozens of airport workers cheered from the runway as the plane, flying Spanish flags from cockpit windows, taxied to a stop while car horns could be heard honking in the distance. A special slogan printed along the fuselage of the Iberia plane read, “Proud of our National Team. Champions.”

A roar of delight rose as team captain and goalkeeper Iker Casillas stepped from the plane and raised the World Cup. The crowd broke into chanting “Campeones, Campeones,” meaning “champions.” The players, wearing the team jersey, walked from the plane to a waiting Spanish football federation bus.

“It’s 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 Madrid.

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?

The country has been depressed by a debt crisis, 20 percent unemployment and nationalist regions fighting to separate from Spain.

Officials said about 75,000 fans celebrated the victory waving the Spanish flag celebrated in Barcelona on Sunday night, where more than 1.1 million people a day earlier protested a Spanish court ruling that their autonomous Catalonia region must remain part of Spain.

“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. “It may soften the blow of the economic news, but it won’t have a long-lasting effect.

“As far as current outrage in Catalonia about the recent decisions of the constitutional tribunal, it will have little or no impact,” he told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “The scale of the outrage in Catalonia has to be seen to be believed.”

He said he wasn’t surprised that people had celebrated Spain’s victory in Catalonia and the Basque region, because he said that, while they are a minority, a lot of Spanish nationalists live in those regions.

“There will be people who are just football-mad who are not politically sensitive or active, who quite reasonably are in the streets expressing their delight,” Preston said. “That’s perfectly normal.

“But there are people who live in Catalonia who are Spanish nationalists, who argue that too much Catalan is spoken. The same is true of the Basque Country. There are plenty of Spanish nationalists there too.”

About 2,000 people waving Spanish flags and wearing the team’s football jersey celebrated Sunday night in the Basque city of Bilbao — actions rarely seen because of the violent campaign led by separatist group ETA since 1968 to gain independence from Spain.

The fact that several of Spain’s best players , like Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, are from the Catalonia region doesn’t sit well with many ordinary Catalans.

“It doesn’t help the Catalans. It just proves they are mugs,” Preston said. “If you are Catalan, you take the fact that many of the players are Catalan as another example of how Spain is a parasite that exploits Catalonia.”

Nevertheless, some Spaniards were hopeful that this moment would unite the country like never before.

“It was as if this was unfinished business for Spain and so it’s been good for everyone,” said Soledad Gonzalez, 51, a security guard from Madrid. “I hope that, God willing, finally, the Spanish flag means being Spanish and not being a fascist, as was the case not so long ago.”

During the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco (1939-1975), Catalans, Basques and others were forbidden from speaking their language and it was illegal to publish books in those languages.

Some news reports saw the national team as an example to follow.

“It would be good if the collective enthusiasm for the team became a stimulus for Spanish society in the face of the current problems and even that it became the motive to demand that our country should resemble and work like this group of young men,” the ABC newspaper said.

Spaniards who partied past midnight to celebrate dragged themselves into work Monday, but were ready to launch the party again after the team’s arrival.

Hair salon owner Marisa Dalon stayed up celebrating until her grown children finally arrived home at 3 a.m.

“It is the greatest day imaginable. We are so incredibly proud,” beamed Dalon, 42.

Frank Griffiths reported from London. Associated Press writers Harold Heckle and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report.

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