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They're the Champions

Team New Zealand's staggering 5-0 defeat of Italy's Luna Rossa must have had divine approval. As the black boat entered the stadium-like Viaduct Basin to a heroes' welcome this afternoon, the sun broke through clouds that had darkened Auckland's skies for two days.

The America's Cup, perched high on its pedestal on a floating stage, glistened in the bright sunlight -- a natural spotlight focused on yacht racing's Holy Grail.

A cheering throng of some 70,000 crazed fans jammed the waterfront to greet the Kiwi crew as America's Cup Central became Party Central. Every conceivable vantage point was several people deep, everyone craning for a look at the boys on the black boat. The Basin itself was chock-a-block with boats.

Deep blue New Zealand flags and red socks waved in the southeasterly breeze that carried their sailors to the decisive fifth win over Italy's Luna Rossa. The flag-wavers sang a verse of the national anthem, then broke into a sing-song chorus:

"We're the champions, we're the champions, we're the champions ... of the world."

Horns of every pitch and tenor tooted and wailed as Black Magic approached. The crowd literally roared its approval. The exultant sailors sprayed champagne on each other and anyone within reach of the arcing bubbly. Black-and-white confetti and red-and-green streamers filled the air, the streamers clinging to New Zealand's magical "millennium rig."

Skipper Russell Coutts and his protégé Dean Barker, who was on the helm for today's fifth and final win, quickly raised the Auld Mug triumphantly overhead. Again the crowd roared its approval. After the bitterly disappointing elimination of the All Blacks rugby team from the World Cup last year, the citizens of this small island nation were hungry for a champion so they could once again lift their chins to the world.

"What a fantastic scene we had at the waterfront today," said Coutts. "I don't think I've ever seen a more emotional scene than that."

The mode was celebratory, but the celebrants were gracious to the vanquished. As Luna Rossa and her downcast Italian crew entered the basin, the song "Luna Rossa" blared from loudspeakers. The crowd on the quay raised their collective arms to the enchanting melody and swayed in unison to the syncopated beat.

A member of the Yacht Club Punta Ala, which led the Prada Challenge, was in awe. "I am very surprised at all the people. This is like a stadium, it is like Wembley," he said, asking not to be identified. "Yachting is a small sport in Italy. It is not the big sport, not like it is here in New Zealand, but one man, Mr. [Patrizio] Bertelli [head of the Prada Challenge], made it bigger."

The club member said the Italian people who followed the racing were happy to see Prada in the America's Cup final, even if the Italians didn't win.

"In Italy we say, 'We went to Rome, but we didn't see the Pope," he added. "But we will say to Mr. Bertelli, 'We are proud of you and we thank you very much.' He will be back."


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