FIFA World Cup: Thousands welcome home Argentina after final defeat

Buenos Aires: Thousands of people greeted a crestfallen Lionel Messi and the rest of the Argentina team when the squad flew home to Buenos Aires on Monday after the World Cup final defeat to Germany.

Television networks carried live coverage of the Aerolineas Argentinas plane -- painted in the blue-and-white colors of the flag with the words "Thank you Argentina" -- as it touched down.

Coach Alejandro Sabella led the team off the plane and onto three buses that took them to be welcomed by President Cristina Kirchner at the nearby offices of the Argentine Football Association, an event that was closed to the media.

"We gave everything we had," Sabella said as he crossed the tarmac at Ezeiza International Airport.

Team members left the plane with grim expressions and had few if any words for waiting journalists.

"I would have liked a different kind of homecoming," said midfielder Javier Mascherano, one of the star performers in the run to Sunday`s final.

Messi, who had his head down and a pained look on his face, did not speak to the media.

But to their adoring fans, the team were heroes for battling Germany to the bitter end of a nail-biting 1-0 defeat in extra time.

"We came to support the team because they gave everything for us and they deserve our support,"
said Matias Ruiz, 17, one of about 500 fans who braved the cold to greet the team`s charter flight from Rio de Janeiro.

Thousands more fans lined the team`s route from the airport, waving sky blue and white flags and swarming the convoy, which moved forward at a snail`s pace.

Nationwide the atmosphere was one of pride as much as disappointment after the team played its first World Cup final since 1990 and Messi claimed the Golden Ball award for best player of the tournament.

Newspaper Pagina/12 ran two large photographs, one of the Argentine players locked in an embrace at Rio`s Maracana Stadium, the other of a little boy in a Messi jersey sitting atop his father`s shoulders at the iconic Obelisk monument in the Argentine capital after the match.

"Love is stronger," said its banner headline.

Hooligans crashed party -

After the match the Obelisk, the place where the country traditionally rallies, initially drew tens of thousands of revellers.

Waving the flag, setting off fireworks and climbing onto traffic lights and bus stops to dance and sing, Argentines showed their determination to celebrate despite the bittersweet end of the nation`s World Cup campaign.

But after several hours of partying, dozens of hardcore fans known as "barras bravas" started throwing stones at police, who responded by firing rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon.

The clashes sent families with children scurrying for refuge in restaurants or hotel lobbies as looters smashed windows and stole what they could, including tables and chairs from a restaurant.

Police arrested around 120 people over the violence, which left 70 wounded, including 15 police and one rioter in serious condition with a punctured lung, said the government and health officials.

Security Secretary Sergio Berni accused the hooligans of planning the violence "with great cruelty" to create an opportunity for looting.

"There was a plan to make this happen to generate mass chaos," he told Radio La Red.

Violence also broke out in the cities of La Plata and Mar del Plata, the government said.

Most fans however voiced their pride.

"It was still a good World Cup. Reaching the final against Germany isn`t too bad. I`m proud of the team," said Leandro Paredes, a 27-year-old mason.

Argentines found consolation in knowing they had at least done better than arch rivals and hosts Brazil, who finished in fourth place.

"Brazil, tell me how it feels to have your daddy in your house," the crowd at the airport gloated, the song that was Argentina`s unofficial anthem throughout the World Cup.

Others sang "I`m Argentine, go Argentina, every day I love you a little more."

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