MADRID, Spain Its freshly painted plane carrying the mark of a champion, Spain's victorious team returned home Monday to a country already celebrating its first major soccer title in 44 years.
Captain Iker Casillas and coach Luis Aragones were the first off the plane, which touched down at Madrid's Barajas International Airport and was inscribed with the word "Campeones" (champions). Casillas and Aragones each had a hand on the trophy as they emerged. Casillas then handed it to the 69-year-old coach for a lift.
"I'm a man who doesn't show great emotions ... but listening to the players, I'm feeling emotional today," said Aragones, who is leaving as coach.
The players spent the plane ride singing songs. Though most still hadn't slept, they cracked into beers while waiting for an open-top bus to take them to thousands of fans downtown.
The 1-0 victory over Germany in the European Championship final in Austria was hailed by the prime minister Monday as not just a breakthrough for soccer but for the nation as well.
"It is right that a football victory on this level strengthens the unity in a country," Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said during a visit to Denmark. "It is the first time we, as a democratic nation, have won a title."
Spain's previous European title came in 1964 when the country was a fascist dictatorship under Gen. Francisco Franco.
With Spain having shed its tag as a perennial soccer underachiever, there was an outpouring of exultation across the country.
"It's no longer a dream, it's a reality: We're champions!" the daily Marca said on its front page, which featured a photo of Casillas hoisting the trophy.
The team went unbeaten with a string of beguiling attacking displays orchestrated by a vibrant midfield. Spain defeated Sweden, defending champion Greece, World Cup champion Italy and Russia twice en route to the title.
After the late-night celebrations, a 40-year-old man wearing a red Spain jersey was found dead in Madrid. He sustained head injuries apparently from a fall, media reports said. There were 52 arrests.
At least 65,000 fans the same number on hand for the outdoor viewing of the final turned up at Colon Square on Monday to greet the team.
Spain's young team entered Euro 2008 as a favorite despite a poor showing the 2006 World Cup a second-round ouster by France. Before Sunday's victory, Spain hadn't passed the quarterfinals of a major tournament since losing the 1984 European Championship final to France.
For a nation that has produced two of the world's greatest teams (Real Madrid and FC Barcelona), Spain had somehow always been found wanting at crunch time despite triumphs at the junior levels of European and World Cup competitions.
Now, the soccer team can join the growing list of Spanish athletes to make their names across the world.
Fernando Alonso has two Formula One championships; Rafael Nadal is threatening to add a Wimbledon title to his four French Open ones; Pau Gasol nearly had a first NBA ring with the Los Angeles Lakers to go with the world title he won two years ago; and Alberto Contador's Giro d'Italia victory showed his Tour de France victory last year was no fluke.
Soccer has caught up in the land of bullfighters.
The Publico newspaper screamed the news across its front page: "Finally!"