Wed, Jul 12, 2006 - Page 20 News List

Azzurri treated to heroes' welcome

AFP , ROME

An open-air coach carrying the Italian national soccer team, crowded by an estimated 1 million supporters, crosses downtown Rome from Chigi Palace to the Circo Massimo late on Monday.

PHOTO: EPA

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi held aloft the World Cup on Monday as he hosted a victory party for the country's triumphant soccer team amid a welter of excitement at the world champions' homecoming to Rome.

Prodi hosted a reception at the prime minister's office in the city center which began more than 90 minutes behind schedule.

The team bus, followed by a cacophonous posse of scooters trailing flags, was repeatedly slowed to a crawl on its way into the city by enthusiastic flag-waving fans.

"We here at home shared with you a tension and suffering without equal," during the month-long competition, Prodi told the 23-member squad.

"Thanks for reminding the younger generation that achievement is wrought with effort, sweat and commitment," Prodi added.

"Grazie. All Italians love you!" he said.

The prime minister, whose beleaguered government is hoping to ride a wave of optimism after the World Cup triumph, handed each of the players a medal during the reception.

The team's plane had touched down at a military airbase outside Rome two hours earlier, and fans who had waited hours to welcome them finally erupted into cheers when the skipper Fabio Cannavaro emerged onto the gangway with the trophy.

Italy's air force acrobatic team, trailing smoke, painted the sky in the green, white and red colors of the national flag during repeated fly-pasts.

But the biggest reception was yet to come. Following the reception, the team was to transfer to an open-topped bus for a victory parade through the historic city center, which was scheduled to culminate in a giant party at the ancient Circus Maximus, where a crowd estimated at 500,000 had gathered.

The Italian heroes are to be decorated with one of the state's highest honors, the Order of Merit of the Republic, by President Giorgio Napolitano in recognition of their victory.

With banner headlines like "Champions" and "The World Belongs to us," the triumphant Italian press hailed the team as legends, saying their victory over France in Sunday's final had deservedly delivered the nation and themselves proper acclaim.

"We are champions because we are Italian," Corriere della Sera, Italy's biggest-selling newspaper, said in an editorial.

From now on "everywhere on Planet Earth, the white, red and green passport of Italy will be stamped with admiration," it said.

The challenge for Prodi now is to tap into that feel-good factor after a desperately grim period for the economy, one of the worst-performing in the EU, and for domestic football, rocked by a match-fixing scandal.

Prodi and Economy Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa announced a whopping 35 billion euros (US$44.7 billion) in budget cuts at the weekend in a bid to bring the public deficit below the 3 percent of GDP required under eurozone rules by next year.

"There's a clear, measurable boost to business confidence, and probably to consumer spending as well, in the wake of something like this. We saw that when France won the World Cup eight years ago," said Howard Archer, chief European economist for analysts Global Insight.

"The question is how long it can be sustained?" he said.

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