Buenos Aires (AFP): Argentina’s World Cup winners led by captain Lionel Messi returned home from Qatar in the early hours of Tuesday morning ahead of a welcome home party in the nation’s capital.
Having beaten France in Sunday’s thrilling final, the players will now spend the night at the Argentine Football Association (AFA) training complex near the Ezeiza airport where they arrived in Buenos Aires and where thousands of supporters were waiting to greet them.
They will then head to the iconic Obelisk monument for a tour of the Buenos Aires city center from midday on Tuesday with millions expected out in the streets on what is a public holiday.
“We will be here all night and tomorrow as well,” student Ayrton Kerdocas, 25, told AFP outside the airport.
“Tomorrow we are not working, we won’t do anything and we’ll go directly to the Obelisk with Argentina.”
Argentina won the final in Qatar 4-2 on penalties after a rollercoaster 3-3 draw over 120 minutes of unparalleled drama for their first world title in 36 years.
Messi, who scored twice in the final, was the first player to emerge from the plane, holding the World Cup aloft, with coach Lionel Scaloni right behind him.
Forward Julian Alvarez, a revelation in Qatar with his four goals, was one of the next players out of the Aerolinas Argentinas Airbus A330.
A picture of Messi was emblazoned on the plane’s tail with the words: “one team, one country, one dream” on its side.
The players made their way from the plane along a red carpet straight to a white open-top bus with the words “world champions” and three stars on its side as their World Cup theme song “Muchachos” by ska band La Mosca blared out.
– ‘Better than 86′ –
Excitement had been brewing since the party that began after Sunday’s final ahead of the players’ arrival.
A private reception at a VIP suite in the airport had been arranged to greet the returning players.
“I came because of my passion for Argentina. I love Messi, I love the entire team,” Alejandra Diaz, 55, a kindergarten teacher told AFP outside the airport.
Welder Javier Merina, 41, a Messi “fanatic” said he had come to the airport to try to get the star to sign a picture.
“If he doesn’t I will go to Rosario, to Funes (Messi’s home town) to see if I can get Messi’s autograph,” said Merina.
Messi, 35, finally crowned his record-breaking career with football’s biggest prize as he produced one of the greatest World Cup final performances, scoring a first-half penalty and netting again in extra time.
In doing so he emulated his predecessor as Argentina’s idol, Diego Maradona who inspired the country to their second world title with a series of match-winning displays at Mexico 1986.
“I remember ’86 but this victory yesterday was much more emotional and much more stressful,” architect Ricardo Grunfeld, 65, told AFP.
“I don’t know if there’s any difference with ’86 but this comes at a good time,” added Zulema Guereri, 80.
Argentina had led 2-0 with 10 minutes of normal time left and 3-2 with only two minutes of extra-time to go but Kylian Mbappe completed only the second World Cup final hat-trick in history to take the gripping final to penalties, before Gonzalo Montiel swept home the decisive spot kick.
Despite the huge numbers of revelers during Sunday’s festivities “people acted in a very positive way,” a spokesperson for the municipality said.
Fewer than 20 people were arrested for isolated incidents of violence or theft.
– ‘It warms the heart’ –
France’s beaten players were given a rousing reception by fans in central Paris on Monday after their return from Qatar.
They appeared on the balcony of the Crillon Hotel overlooking the Place de la Concorde.
“Frankly, it’s magnificent, it warms the heart, it’s a great pleasure to see that we were able to make so many French people proud and happy,” forward Marcus Thuram told TF1 TV.
They landed at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport just before 8:00 pm (1900 GMT) where a caravan of coaches took them straight to the center of Paris.
Goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris told TF1 that it was a chance to “greet them (the fans), to thank them for their support and, after yesterday’s pain, to seek their consolation.”
The captivating final rounded off one of the most controversial World Cups in history.
Qatari organisers faced persistent questions about the country’s treatment of migrant workers and its laws on homosexuality.
Football’s world governing body FIFA said the cumulative stadium attendance was 3.4 million spectators and that more than one million visitors travelled to Qatar to watch the matches.