Buenos Aires (AFP) - A crestfallen Lionel Messi kept a low profile as thousands of people greeted the Argentina squad on their return home Monday, just hours after their World Cup final defeat to Germany.
Television networks carried live coverage of the Aerolineas Argentinas plane -- painted in the blue-and-white colors of the flag with the words "Thank you Argentina" -- as it touched down in Buenos Aires, where about 500 fans braved the cold to meet the flight from Rio de Janeiro.
Thousands more fans lined the team's route from the airport, waving sky blue and white flags and swarming the convoy of three buses, which moved at a snail's pace through the crowds.
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 -- a decision that Argentine football legend Diego Maradona said was undeserved.
"I just want to thank everyone for the welcome," Messi, who spent much of the morning with a pained look on his face, told a reception with President Cristina Kirchner at the offices of the Argentine Football Association.
"I would have liked to have brought home the Cup and enjoyed it with you (the country). We gave everything we had but we just didn't manage it."
Matias Ruiz, 17, one of those who met the squad's charter flight from Rio, echoed the sentiments of many, saying: "They gave everything for us and they deserve our support."
- Hooligan violence -
Kirchner had the bright energy of a school teacher as she greeted the squad -- who in turn resembled pupils shyly trying to keep to the back row and avoid being called on to speak after their 1-0 extra-time loss on Sunday.
She met the team with hugs and set a light tone for the welcome ceremony, teasing striker Gonzalo Higuain, forward Ezequiel "Pocho" Lavezzi and winger Angel Di Maria, among others.
She drew laughs when she told Higuain he should go to the doctor for an MRI scan after German keeper Manuel Neuer crashed into him in the second half, an incident that controversially the referee waved away.
Kirchner tried hard to provoke a blush from Lavezzi and Di Maria, often described as the team's best-looking members.
"Pocho, come here, they say you're the sex symbol of the team," she told Lavezzi, trying to persuade him to say a few words.
"Di Maria, come here, the girls are asking for you," she said.
But the players were reluctant to take the microphone, and the smiles were fleeting.
"It's very nice when people recognize what you do. We would have loved to bring home the Cup but we weren't able to," said Lavezzi.
After the match Sunday Buenos Aires' iconic Obelisk monument, 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 police, 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 as looters smashed windows and stole what they could, including tables and chairs from a restaurant.
Police arrested around 120 people over the violence, which left 70 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.