Argentina set for homecoming after World Cup heartbreak

Lionel Messi and the rest of the Argentina squad were due home Monday morning, just hours after their World Cup final defeat to Germany provoked an emotional national reaction ranging from tears to cheers to violence.

The team were expected in Buenos Aires at about 10:00 am (1300 GMT) and will be met by President Cristina Kirchner, said the Argentine Football Association, as well as a few hundred fans who had gathered at the airport to watch their arrival.

Police will be on alert after Sunday's post-game reaction descended into clashes between hooligans and riot police in the capital, shattering what had initially been a massive street party celebrating the team's heroic efforts in the extra-time defeat.

But nationwide the atmosphere was one of pride as much as disappointment after the team played its first World Cup final since 1990 and Messi claimed the Golden Ball award for best player of the tournament.

"Heart of champions" read the headline on sports daily Ole's website.

"We lost the final 1-0, but we gave everything we had and returned to the (World Cup) podium after 24 years," it wrote. "Thank you World Cup team," it added, saying they "deserve the best welcome."

Newspaper Pagina/12 ran two large photographs, one of the Argentine players locked in an embrace at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium, the other of a little boy in a Messi jersey sitting atop his father's shoulders at the iconic Obelisk monument in the capital after the match.

"Love is stronger," said its banner headline.

After the match the Obelisk, the place where the country traditionally rallies, initially drew tens of thousands of revellers.

Waving the flag, setting off fireworks and climbing onto traffic lights and bus stops to dance and sing, Argentines showed their determination to celebrate despite the bittersweet end of the nation's World Cup campaign.

But after several hours of partying, dozens of hardcore fans known as "barras bravas" started throwing stones at riot police watching over the crowd, who responded by firing rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon.

The clashes sent families with children scurrying for refuge in restaurants or hotel lobbies.

Most of the crowd dispersed as a haze of tear gas settled over the area, leaving just a few dozen fans determined to provoke the police.

Looters smashed windows and stole what they could, including tables and chairs from a restaurant.

Police arrested around 100 people over the clashes, which left 70 people wounded, including 15 police and one rioter in serious condition with a punctured lung, said the government and health officials.

Violence also broke out in the cities of La Plata and Mar del Plata, the government said.

- Praise from Maradona -

Most fans however voiced their pride.

"It was still a good World Cup. Reaching the final against Germany isn't too bad. I'm proud of the team," said Leandro Paredes, a 27-year-old mason.

Football legend Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to their last World Cup title in 1986, said the match could have gone the other way.

"I'm sad about Mario Goetze's goal," he said on his TV program De Zurda for Venezuelan broadcaster Telesur. "But we can't forget that we took this World Cup step by step. If we had scored (Gonzalo) Higuain's (disallowed) goal we would be partying. Germany wasn't dominant."

Argentines found consolation in knowing they had at least done better than arch rivals and hosts Brazil, who finished in fourth place.

"Brazil, tell me how it feels to have your daddy in your house," tens of thousands gathered in the capital's Plaza San Martin sang to their South American neighbors after the game, the song that has been Argentina's anthem throughout this World Cup.

Others sang "I'm Argentine, go Argentina, every day I love you a little more."

But it remains to be seen what sort of reception the team will get.

Despite the display of national pride, the weight of disappointment was heavy.

Newspaper Clarin summed it up on its website: "The Argentine dream frustrated in extra time."