At the end of a tense World Cup final against the Netherlands, Andres Iniesta, the brilliant Spanish midfielder, broke free from his Dutch defender, received the ball from teammate Cesc Fabregas, and fired it into the net for an extended-time 1-0 victory.
When goalkeeper Iker Casillas, the team captain, lifted the golden World Cup trophy, millions of Spanish celebrated in the streets all over the country, with nearly 500,000 people forming a sea of red and yellow in Madrid. On the small Balearic island of Menorca, people lit up the night sky with fireworks or drove through the streets honking car horns. In Barcelona, where more than 1 million people on Saturday had demanded autonomy for their Catalonia region, crowds were waving Spanish flags in an unexpected display of national pride.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has trouble steering his country out of a bitter recession, said he celebrated the victory with cava, the famous Catalan sparkling wine.
"We raised a glass of cava and a few tears came to my eyes," Zapatero said. "They were 120 intense minutes for me. It was an epic victory."
And one that plays into Zapatero's hands. His unpopular minority government has to deal with an economic recession, 20 percent unemployment and a spiraling public deficit similar to the one that forced Greece near bankruptcy. A $18 billion austerity package passed through parliament in May by just one vote, narrowly averting a vote of no-confidence for the prime minister.
But successful soccer seems to be the best medicine for this country. Spain's winning streak, which included a 1-0 semifinal victory over soccer powerhouse Germany, boosted the Spanish EWP stock market by 12 percent. Observers say the World Cup triumph might appease the public, angered by the painful austerity measures and a controversial labor reform, which makes firing easier and cheaper.
In a sign that Zapatero knows about the effects of soccer in his country, the reform was rushed through parliament June 22, the day after Spain's World Cup victory against Honduras in the group stages.
"This date was purposely chosen," Miguel Sanchez-Rodrigo Wickers, a Spanish journalist, told United Press International Monday. "The entire people were happy about the first World Cup victory and did not worry too much about politics. The team had come back from a bitter defeat against Switzerland and from then on it kept winning until the very end."
But in a few days, when the World Cup euphoria will subside, Zapatero might have to explain himself.
Unions have called for a general strike for Sept. 29 that is due to protest public sector cuts and the labor reform.
That same month, Zapatero will have to lobby for his 2011 budget. If it isn't approved, Spain could face early elections and -- despite the soccer triumph -- an uncertain political future.
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