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

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Under cover police officers detain a man after riot police fired tear gas and used water cannons to restrain a group of youths who hurled rocks and vandalized store fronts at a rally to celebrate Argentina’s gutsy performance in a 1-0 loss to Germany in the World Cup finals, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, July 13, 2014. Police said more than a dozen officers were injured and many more were arrested. The chaotic situation marred what was an otherwise spontaneous gathering of support for Argentina’s national team after its best World Cup run in 24 years. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

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Under cover police officers detain a man after riot police fired tear gas and used water cannons to restrain a group of youths who hurled rocks and vandalized store fronts at a rally to celebrate Argentina’s gutsy performance in a 1-0 loss to Germany in the World Cup finals, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, July 13, 2014. Police said more than a dozen officers were injured and many more were arrested. The chaotic situation marred what was an otherwise spontaneous gathering of support for Argentina’s national team after its best World Cup run in 24 years. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

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

The team arrived in Buenos Aires on a plane painted with images of the players and a large sign reading: "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 gauchos on horses, flooded the road leading from the airport to the football association complex.

"You showed that through courage, passion and bringing everything you have and more to the field you can triumph," 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 does the one in first place win; 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!"

"We have nothing to regret, we played first rate," said 53-year-old Horacio Laseiras, carrying his 6-year-old daughter on his shoulders.

Violence broke out later Sunday night, forcing riot police to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse vandals who threw 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 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 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 the president'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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Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao

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