Across Italy, piazzas go wild for the champions of the world

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Italy exploded with pride and joy last night after its football team clinched the World Cup for the fourth time, beating France 5-3 on penalties in a nailbiting finish.

Hundreds of thousands of Italian fans honked horns and waved tricolour flags from cars, while scooters flooded city centres ­ from Piazza Venezia in Rome to St Mark's Square in Venice ­ in a festa that lasted into the early hours. "Champions of the world, champions of the world," Ansa, the Italian news agency, said simply.

Firecrackers and rockets fired from terraces and balconies blasted over the eternal city at 10.45 pm as the outcome of the penalty shoot-out was known. During the match, the capital's streets had been almost deserted

Thousands of beaming riot police and immaculately dressed Carabinieri paramilitary troopers in armoured cars ­ most of them fitted with miniature television screens so that the officers could watch the final ­ stood by the Piazza Venezia and the vast Piazza del Popolo at the end of the packed Via del Corso to ensure Rome's notoriously violent Ultra hooligans did not take advantage of the rejoicing to carry out acts of vandalism.

The victory was a gift for Romano Prodi, the centre-left Prime Minister who took office in April and was sure to bask in the reflected glory with his fragile government that has come under severe pressure recently from striking taxi drivers challenging his liberalisation programme.

The triumph also was much-needed relief from the travails of the nation's first division football clubs locked in a scandal expected to lead to relegation to the second or third division of clubs employing several Italian national team players. It broke in May after the publication of wire-tapped conversations between the former Juventus manager Luciano Moggi and Italian Football Association officials talking about referee appointments.

Three investigations have opened since and last week the federal prosecutor Stefano Palazzi charged four teams with sport fraud. He asked the judges to give an exemplary punishment to the clubs and individuals involved and demanded Juventus's relegation to Serie C. He also called for the demotion of the other three clubs. But now Italy has won the World Cup many fans, including prominent politicians, are likely to demand a softer sentence.

Last night, the scandal was for the future. Street parties with more fireworks and the pounding of drums erupted in the working class districts of Testaccio and Trastevere in torrid heat that nobody seemed to care about while at the Trevi fountain, fans dressed in blue soccer gear ­ many with faces painted green, red and white ­ doused passers-by with buckets of water.

About 180,000 fans had watched the final on a huge screen in the Circus Maximus, the Roman charioteering raceground, and as the penalty stand-off ended, the throng poured out towards the Colosseum to celebrate in the shade of the building.

Tens of thousands watched the game on a screen in Milan's Piazza del Duomo, while in the bay of Naples, soccer fans had hoarded high-explosive firecrackers for weeks. The illumination of the sky was "like New Year's Eve", according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

The website of Rome's La Repubblica newspaper provided readers with Web addresses of the main French papers for those wanting to savour accounts of how France was taking defeat at the hands of Italy.

In Paris, French fans who had gathered on the Champs Elysées for an all-night party stood in stunned groups after the final whistle. Not only had their team lost but the icon of French football, Zinedine Zidane, had been sent off for headbutting 10 minutes from the end of his final game. "Everything was so beautiful. We were here to celebrate. How could it all end like that?" William, a French fan, said.

The Champs Elysées had been cleared of traffic from 7pm as France awaited victory. In the event, the rotating messages projected on the Arc de Triomphe were consolatory, reading "You remain our heroes" and "Zizou, we love you".

President Jacques Chirac was not downtrodden. "They did something extraordinary that made all France vibrate," he said after watching the final in Berlin. He reserved his fondest words for Zidane, "a man who incarnated the most beautiful values of sport and the biggest human qualities you can imagine".

And it was the talismanic midfielder who provided the moment the match may be best remembered for: the moment of madness that saw him sent off for his vicious headbutt to the chest of Marco Materazzi.