Thousands of jubilant Italian fans welcomed home their World Cup heroes with open arms last night.

An estimated crowd of half a million lined the streets of Rome as the national football team paraded through the streets, just like the conquering war heroes of ancient times.

The Azzurri touched down at Pratica di Mare airbase at 18.45, a day after their dramatic victory over France in the World Cup final in Berlin.

First to emerge from the plane was captain Fabio Cannavaro, clutching the 18-carat gold trophy that means Italy are world champions for the fourth time.

The team headed first to the seat of government in Romes historic centre, and a reception with prime minister Romano Prodi and government ministers.

Beforehand on Via Cristoforo Colombo, part of the teams route, there was confusion and no little danger as cars began parking up on the slow lane out at EUR; occupants emerged and stood in hope of catching sight of the players.

Police helicopters buzzed overhead and sirens wailed monotonously.

The long wait came to an end as the players sped past in two covered coaches, followed by a miles-long red, white and green tail of beeping scooters and exhaust fumes.

The focus now switched to the city centre, as crowds headed for Circus Maximus, where they had watched Italy sweep to glory just 24 hours earlier.

There was to be another wild celebration tonight, but this time the players and that famous revered trophy were invited too.

Trains on the Metro B line were rocking and flags draped across seats, as fans crammed in and made for the celebrations.

They soon found the Circus Maximus stop closed though, and so made for the Colosseum.

Here the party was really in full swing, and if anything even more so than the night of the final match against France in Berlin, as the extent of the teams achievement began to sink in for many fans.

Supporters clambered on to buses left gridlocked by the crowds, firecrackers ripped through the sky and a hapless tour bus ground to a halt outside the Colosseum; those visitors on board had come from across the world to see the famous monument, now they would be looking at it for several hours, like it or not.

Fans lined Via Fori Imperiali, expecting the now open-top bus to pass the Colosseum, but were left disappointed as it instead weaved through Piazza Venezia and on to the Circus Maximus, bypassing the waiting throngs.

Among the banners lofted high was one declaring: Buffon Santo Subito (Make Buffon a saint now!) along with others declaring their undying love for players including defender Fabio Grosso and captain Cannavaro.

At Circus Maximus, the players emerged looking just as excited as the fans. Under a huge sign declaring: Italia Ringrazia Gli Azzurri (Italy thanks the Blues), striker Alessandro del Piero banged his bare chest and screamed into the night; moments later Roma captain Francesco Totti held the trophy high as a rousing rendition of the national anthem brought proceedings to an emotional end.

Anyone who doubted these celebrations couldnt have topped Sundays mayhem clearly wasnt lucky enough to be at the party; it was the night when once again, all roads led to Rome.

The players, coach Marcello Lippi, technical staff and directors of the Italian football association have been awarded the Order of Merit of the Republic - one of the state's highest honours, which they will receive from the president of the republic, Giorgio Napolitano, at a special ceremony at the Quirinal Palace.