Spain World Cup joy relief from economic woes
Thousands of Spaniards poured onto the streets across the country late on Wednesday, draped in yellow and red flags, to celebrate the win that took Spain to their first World Cup final against Netherlands at Soccer City in South Africa on Sunday.
"We're incredibly proud. This is a welcome distraction from the crisis and from the awful government we have. It lifts peoples' spirits," said 63-year-old Loria Alejandrez, a civil servant who watched the match at a public screening outside Real Madrid's Bernabeu stadium.
In central Madrid, traffic came to a standstill as fans lay on pedestrian crossings, clambered over monuments and pretended to be bullfighters to cars, using Spanish flags as capes. Cars and buses beeped their horns and fireworks exploded.
Spain, suffering the highest unemployment in Europe and a debt hangover from a decade-long property boom, has introduced tough austerity measures including public worker wage cuts in efforts to stave off a Greek-style debt crisis.
The cool-headed display of teamwork by the Spanish side was in sharp contrast to the bitter political fighting that has dogged the weakened Socialist government's attempts to enforce unpopular reforms under pressure from international markets.
"We need something to show we can do things together instead of bickering all the time," said Pedro Schwartz, economist at San Pablo University in Madrid.
The match was screened on 14 million Spanish television sets and captured over 80 percent of the television audience on Wednesday night, a media consultancy said.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said he had watched the match nervously with his wife and daughters and the players had brought Spain great happiness in a difficult time.
"Our moment has come in football and I think this comes at a good time to lift the confidence and self-esteem of the country," he said in a radio interview.
Confidence in Spain from financial markets has wilted in recent months, driving up the government's cost of borrowing.
The fact the player who headed the winning goal, central defender Carles Puyol, is from the north-eastern region of Catalonia, gave an extra boost to feelings of Spanish unity.
The Catalans speak their own language and are seeking more political independence from Madrid.
Spain is enjoying success in the world of sport, with a Wimbledon victory for Rafael Nadal this year and Spanish basketball player Pau Gasol helping the Los Angeles Lakers win their second successive NBA championship.
However, the grim reality of 20 percent unemployment and some of the highest personal debt levels in Europe coupled with the prospect of cuts in wages and benefits kept heads level at a Madrid job centre.
"It's a case of bread and circuses. When things were going badly in Rome, they put on a circus with free food to make people happy and to appease riots," said Julio Ramirez, a 34-year-old unemployed English teacher in the queue at the centre. "That's how I see the football."