Swathed in the red and yellow colors of Spain, hundreds of thousands packed central Madrid to give a hero's welcome home Monday to "La Roja" — the national soccer team that erased the economically struggling country's gloomy mood by winning the Euro 2012 Championship with flair.
Team captain and goalie Iker Casillas proudly held the tournament cup as he emerged from the plane in Madrid with coach Vicente del Bosque. The players danced and sang, raised the trophy and sprayed drinks on the screaming, flag-waving crowds below as the bus crawled along at a snail's pace.
The victory even had some Spaniards offering a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: Why not have the players run the country instead of Spain's feckless politicians?
In the end, Spain were the best team in Euro 2012 by a considerable distance. They turned the final into a procession and, when they reflect on becoming the first nation to win three major tournaments in succession, the sense of jubilation should be greatly enhanced by this being the night when they were rewarded for having absolute conviction in their principles.
They never wavered in the face of great scrutiny and Vicente del Bosque's formation, however unorthodox, was shown ultimately to be based on the strongest of foundations, to the extent it feels bizarre in the extreme that a team of this brilliance could ever be accused of not entertaining.
It was a night of grievous damage for Italy, when the final whistle was merciful and Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli watched the trophy presentation through tears. Never before has a final been turned into such a rout, or one that felt so overwhelmingly brutal, and the real debate about Spain, surely, is whether there has ever been a more devastatingly effective team.
Del Bosque's team were ahead before a quarter of an hour had been played, courtesy of David Silva's header, and they had doubled that lead four minutes before the interval, when Xavi Hernández's pass sent Jordi Alba running clear. Italy have played with great charisma throughout this tournament but any hopes of a comeback were extinguished on the hour when Thiago Motta, their third substitute, suffered a hamstring injury. They had nobody left to bring on and, a man down, were always going to be vulnerable to what followed during those brutal, late stages.
Fernando Torres stroked in the third, in the process becoming the first player to score in two European Championship finals, and it was another substitute, Juan Mata, who completed the rout barely a minute after coming on the pitch. Italy will rue their bad luck but the truth, indisputably, is that Spain had signalled their superiority long before they had the luxury of the extra player.
La Roja played with style and panache. They had the night's outstanding performer in Andrés Iniesta and another, Xavi, occupying the same tier of uncommon brilliance. Then consider the contribution of Xabi Alonso, Silva and Cesc Fábregas. Del Bosque's line-up, with no recognised striker, might not appeal to the Eurosauruses out there but the simple truth is the Spanish are too refined, too devoted to the art of possession, to change for anyone. Del Bosque had listened to the criticism, all that stuff about it being a negative tactic, and decided not to budge an inch, and who can blame him?
The first olés could be heard inside the opening five minutes. It was not that Italy were particularly poor; this was just a Spanish team filled with serial champions, all of whom wanted the ball and had the football intelligence to do the right things with it. The paradox is that Italy had plenty of possession, too. Yet Spain had penetration, working those elaborate little passing triangles, then suddenly changing the pace of the game once they saw the openings.
The first goal was a case in point. Xavi was involved, almost inevitably.
Iniesta, too. These two alone make it feel faintly preposterous that Spain could ever be condemned for drudgery. Iniesta's pass inside Giorgio Chiellini was weighted beautifully. Fábregas was quick enough to elude his opponent and drive into the penalty area. The ball into Silva arrived at pace and an awkward height but the Manchester City player improvised with a twisting header, angled perfectly into the top corner.
By that stage Spain had already established the pattern of controlling play in the middle of the pitch. Their three more advanced players — Silva, Iniesta and Fábregas — could all interchange positions. Xavi and Iniesta were the stars, but everyone gets their go in this team. What also gets overlooked sometimes is the devilish way they work to get the ball back when they lose it. It is as if they are so aggrieved to have forfeited possession they cannot rest until they are back in control, knocking the ball around, left and right, long and short.
Italy's attacking was more erratic and when Chiellini signalled to the bench that he could not continue, six minutes after Silva's goal, the impression grew that their first Euro final since 2000 was turning into an ordeal. Briefly, Cesare Prandelli's players rallied but Xavi's pass for Alba was sumptuous and suddenly the left-back was sprinting clear to stroke his shot past Gianluigi Buffon and, from there, Spain were never going to be caught.
Italy will reflect on two chances early in the second half for Antonio Di Natale, a half-time replacement for Antonio Cassano. In between, however, they were lucky not to concede a penalty after Leonardo Bonucci's arm blocked Sergio Ramos's header. This was their one moment of good fortune and when Motta went off, only four minutes after his arrival, it was almost a surprise Buffon was not beaten again until the 84th minute.
Xavi was the architect again, picking up De Rossi's misplaced pass and playing Torres through the middle to slip his shot by the side of Buffon.
Italy were crushed and, four minutes later, Torres was clear again, squaring his pass for Mata to add the final flourish and bring more olés.