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Argentina's team gets warn welcome after gutsy performance at the World Cup final

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Argentina's national team was welcomed home on Monday by thousands of fans celebrating its gutsy performance in the World Cup final.

The team arrived to Buenos Aires in the morning in a plane painted with images of the players and a large sign that read: "Thank you Argentina." A river of emotional fans wearing the white and sky-blue striped jerseys of the national team - among them a group of Argentine cowboys, or gauchos, riding horses - flooded the road leading from the airport to the football association complex.

"You showed that through courage, passion and leaving everything on the field you can achieve triumphs," President Cristina Fernandez said after greeting all members of the team at the complex with a hug and a pat on the back.

"You've given us values that Argentines, surrounded by so much triumphalism, thought were lost. Not only the first one wins - you also win when you show quality and manage to unite with others to go forward," Fernandez said.

"That's why I wanted to greet you today and thank you on behalf of 40 million proud Argentines."

The two-time world champion entered the title match as the clear underdog after Germany's 7-1 thrashing of host Brazil. But despite complaints about lacklustre play earlier in the tournament, the team led by captain Lionel Messi showed grit throughout the 1-0 overtime loss to Germany, creating several opportunities to score in the first 90 minutes.

"I'm thankful to everyone. I would have liked to bring you back the Cup and to be able to enjoy it. We tried, we gave it our all but we couldn't achieve it," said Messi, who won the trophy for the tournament's best player.

"Despite that, I think we gave a great joy to the country by reaching this final and facing our rivals without giving anything away."

Argentina last played in a World Cup final in 1990, when it lost to West Germany. Four years earlier, it became world champion for the second time led by captain Diego Maradona, also in a final against the Germans.

After Sunday's final, thousands of saddened but proud Argentines gathered peacefully at the iconic Obelisk in downtown Buenos Aires to applaud their team's best World Cup performance in 24 years. Cars honked staccato rhythms, firecrackers were tossed into the air and fans of all ages jumped in place shouting "Argentina! Argentina! Argentina!"

Violence broke out later in the night forcing riot police to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a group of vandals who hauled rocks, destroyed store fronts, tore down street lights and even broke into a theatre. Parents with small children fled in fear.

National security secretary Sergio Berni said that 120 people were arrested. The Buenos Aires emergency medical service reported on Monday that 70 people were treated for injuries, including 15 police officers.

The chaotic situation marred what was an otherwise spontaneous show of support for Argentina's national team.

Over the weekend, hundreds of national flags were hoisted along normally busy avenues that came to a standstill during the match.

Giant posters with a smiling Messi seemed to greet passers-by on almost every corner of Buenos Aires, and plastic replicas of the World Cup, Messi masks and striped white and blue scarves became fast-selling items.

The shot at the title united Argentines otherwise exasperated by one of the world's highest inflation rates, an encroaching debt crisis and a corruption scandal that has penetrated deep into Fernandez's inner circle.

Fernandez, whose approval rating has plunged in recent months, kept a low profile during the tournament. She declined an invitation to attend the final, preferring instead to rest ahead of a summit Tuesday, also in Brazil, with leaders from Brazil, Russia, India and China.

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Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao

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