ROME - Air force planes decorated the sky with colorful smoke as Italy's triumphant World Cup squad returned home Monday evening to celebrate with its jubilant fans.
Team captain Fabio Cannavaro, clutching the golden trophy, was the first to emerge from the chartered plane that brought the team back from Germany a day after Italy's victory over France on penalty kicks. Acrobatic air force planes streaked overhead, coloring the sky with streams of red, white and green smoke - hues of the Italian flag - as well as in blue, which is the team's nickname.
Authorities said about 500,000 fans descended on Circus Maximus, an area for entertainment in ancient Rome, for a victory rally.
Players stood on the top level of an open-roofed bus which struggled to move through thousands of fans who took photos with cell phones and ran after the team en route to the celebration.
Fans on foot or on motorscooters overwhelmed police escorts in the streets and squares of the capital as the players made their way to their first stop in Rome: A toast hosted by Premier Romano Prodi.
"Thanks, thanks for reminding young people that results come only with hard work, sweat and commitment," Prodi told the players at the premier's office in Chigi Palace.
The players at times were as delirious as their fans. Francesco Totti, a hometown hero, leaned out of a window in the premier's office and held the trophy out to the crowd below, which roared in delight.
Fans danced with joy as a plump, reddish moon shone in the sky above Rome. Fireworks added more color to the sky.
"I am very happy because Italy won after an extremely long 24 years," said Toni Gnisci, 31, referring to the previous World Cup victory by Italy in 1982.
For hours after Sunday's victory, joyous fans hit the streets in droves, waving flags, setting off fireworks and stripping down to their underwear and jumping into fountains.