MADRID -- Spain erupted with its biggest fiesta in memory when its football team returned to a jubilant nation after winning the World Cup, giving elated Spaniards a break from months of economic gloom and political squabbling.

Hundreds of thousands of people - if not more - jammed Madrid's historic avenues Monday as an open air bus ferried the national team down stately avenues to cheers from Spaniards decked out in a sea of red and yellow, the colors of the Spanish flag.

The celebration in Madrid, where national unity is at its strongest, was expected. But there were striking examples of support from unlikely places: The well-off Catalonia region, which has long sought greater autonomy, and the separatist Basque region, where anything pro-Spain is often shunned.

The massive Madrid street party came after players visited Madrid's Royal Palace, normally used only for dreary state affairs. But team members chatted and had drinks with King Juan Carlos, who hugged many players and gave coach Vicente del Bosque friendly punches on the cheek and the chest.

"You are an example of sportsmanship, nobility, good play and team work," said the king.

Team members then traveled to government headquarters, where they were greeted by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, ministers and hundreds of ecstatic children invited to the event.

"They won the cup but it belongs to all Spaniards," shouted a delighted Zapatero.

Goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas said the victory meant "Spain's name will be on top of the world for the next four years."

Next came an open-air bus ride through Madrid's historic center, the epicenter of the celebration for the second day in a row. Crowds overflowed into the street and surrounded the team bus, virtually all sporting the red and yellow national colors along the five-kilometer (three-mile) route as the bus crawled through the crowd with the players waving and raising the gold World Cup trophy into the air.

At the route's end, firefighters hosed down fans sweltering in 36 degree Celsius (96 degree Fahrenheit) evening heat.

As the parade snaked down the Gran Via in the heart of Madrid, Spanish air force fighter jets flew overhead spewing out the colors of the national flag.

On the bus, the players waved flags and saluted the screaming fans below. Casillas raised a red and yellow carton cutout of Octopus Paul, the mollusk from the German aquarium that predicted Spain's victory.

Such was the multitude clogging the streets and avenues that the team arrived more than hour late at the finishing esplanade. Madrid town hall urged no more people to go to the park area, as it had already reached its 150,000 capacity.

"For us Spaniards this is important. It is a way of showing that Spain is united," said Roberto Lopez, 48, a Madrid car salesman. "It's not Galicia on one side and Catalonia on the other.

Juan Mateos, a 35-year-old civil servant, described the celebrations as "a bit of anesthetic to forget about our problems." (AP)