By Daniel Politi, Associated Press
Thousands of fans lined up in the middle of the night to try to get a glimpse of the Argentina football team that won one of the greatest World Cup finals of all time, ahead of what is scheduled to be a day of celebrations in Buenos Aires.
Members of the team, led by captain Lionel Messi, were all smiles as they descended from the plane in Ezeiza, outside Argentina’s capital, shortly before 3am on Tuesday, on to a red carpet that had been rolled out for the squad.
Messi was the first player from the plane, carrying the World Cup, flanked by coach Lionel Scaloni, who put his arm around him as they walked past a sign that read “Thank you, champions”.
The players were welcomed by rock band La Mosca singing Muchachos, a song that was written by a fan to the tune of an old song by the band, and became a popular unofficial anthem for Argentine fans at the World Cup in Qatar.
The newly crowned champions of the world boarded an open-top bus and several, including Messi, could be seen singing the words of Muchachos while they waited for everyone to get on, before heading to the headquarters of the Argentine Football Association.
The bus moved at a snail’s pace as fans, many of whom were waving Argentine flags, swarmed towards it, eager for a glimpse of the players as law enforcement officers tried to keep them at bay.
The players will sleep at AFA headquarters for a few hours before boarding the bus later that will take them to the Obelisk, the Buenos Aires landmark that was a sea of people on Sunday after the team won the country’s third World Cup, and its first since 1986.
The day after the streets of Argentina had turned into massive parties following the Sunday victory, many kept a close eye on the flight that brought the players home to celebrate.
President Alberto Fernandez declared a national holiday on Tuesday so the country could celebrate the victory.
As the plane got closer to Argentine soil, almost 200,000 people were tracking its path online and news channels gave live coverage of the arrival.
In the afternoon, people started arriving at the airport and outside the AFA headquarters in the hope of getting a glimpse of the team.
Many were also already at the Obelisk, seemingly ready to spend the night there to ensure a prime spot for Tuesday’s festivities.
Several players posted photos of the plane journey on social media.
Messi held the World Cup on the plane. Nicolas Tagliafico, meanwhile, posted a photo of the World Cup buckled into a seat as if it were just another passenger.
The World Cup and the success of the Messi-led squad has brought much-needed good news for a country that has been stuck in economic doldrums for years, is suffering one of the world’s highest inflation rates and where almost four in 10 people live in poverty.
Mr Fernandez retweeted several messages of congratulations for the World Cup victory from other world leaders, including Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“Thank you for this greeting President Putin,” Mr Fernandez wrote on Twitter after a telephone call with the Russian leader.
“Let the happiness that today unites Argentina with so many countries in the world serve as an example: Our societies need unity and peace.”