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A million cheers for Spain

MADRID, July 13- Spain's victorious World Cup squad returned to a heroes' welcome in Madrid on Monday with hundreds of thousands of fans cheering the team as they paraded through the capital's streets on an open top bus.People chanted "Campeones! Campeones! Campeones!" and waved red and gold Spanish flags at the players as the black bus crawled along a roughly eight-kilometre (five-mile) route through the city’s main thoroughfares amid scorching temperatures.

Fans waved at the players from balconies while others climbed on trees to get a better view of the 23-man squad which won the World Cup on Sunday for the first time in Spain’s history with a 1-0 extra-time defeat of the Netherlands.

"We can speak of there being several hundred thousand people," a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office told AFP, adding it was difficult to arrive at a precise figure because of the length of the parade route.

The parade will end at the esplanade near the riverside Puente del Rey, where the festivities are expected to continue officially until midnight.

"I want to congratulate from the bottom of my heart these 23 players for this victory but behind them they had the united force of all Spaniards," Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said at a reception for the players at his official residence ahead of the victory parade.

"They won this trophy but it belongs to all Spaniards and it is a win also for all players from previous generations who tried to win it. They won because they were the best, because they played as a team and they played cleanly."

Spain won the 2008 European Championships but had never even reached a World Cup final before. Until this year the best Spain had managed was the quarter-finals.

Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta, who scored the winning goal against the Netherlands just four minutes before the final whistle, presented the prime minister with a red team jersey signed by all the players.

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"Thank you for the welcome, I am very proud to be a part of this team and this little trophy is for everyone," Iniesta said at the reception.

Before meeting with Zapatero, Spain’s King Juan Carlos also hosted a reception for the squad at his palace in Madrid where he thanked the team for making "our dreams a reality".

The squad arrived at Madrid’s Barajas airport just before 2 pm (1200 GMT) on an Iberia plane that features Spanish flags flying from the cockpit windows and the words "Proud of our squad" emblazoned on the side.

A huge cheer erupted from a crowd gathered at the airport when keeper Iker Casillas emerged from the plane with coach Vicente del Bosque and held aloft the golden trophy.

The World Cup victory has brought a sliver of happiness to a country where around 20 percent of the active population is jobless, the highest rate in the euro zone.

For many along the parade route this will be their second straight night celebrating Spain’s World Cup win.

Tens of thousands of people danced, cheered and set off fireworks in the Spanish capital overnight after the final whistle.

Others imitated bullfighters and waved large Spanish flags over passing cars while chanting "Ole!"

"Champions," wrote right-wing newspaper ABC on its front page below a photo of Casillas holding up the World Cup trophy, surrounded by his teammates.

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Sports daily AS said on its front page that Iniesta "scored the most important goal in our history" while sports daily Marca said his goal "lifted Spanish football to the highest possible level."

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