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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

Iberian derby: sibling rivalry takes centre stage

Spain and Portugal, who meet tonight in Cape Town, represent two neighbouring countries with a rivalry stretching back 700 years.
Simao, one of six players in the Portugal squad who ply their trade in Spain.
Simao, one of six players in the Portugal squad who ply their trade in Spain.

Spain and Portugal, who meet tonight in Cape Town, represent two neighbouring countries with a rivalry stretching back 700 years. Both former colonial empires, Spain likes to see itself as Portugal's big brother, the king of the Iberian peninsula. Portugal cannot deny Spain's much larger land mass, nor population (40.5 million against 10.6 million), but argues that they have a richer colonial history and relishes the fact that almost as many people in the world speak Portuguese as Spanish. The Portuguese view Spain as the arrogant older brother and the sibling rivalry stretches to football. The little brother has got a habit of making a name for himself, however.

Real Madrid quickly established themselves as the great football side in the world following the advent of the European Cup in the 1950s, but they were superseded by Portugal's Benfica. The Portuguese were quick to point out that, for a far less-populated country, this was a greater achievement. Spain has historically snared the best Portuguese talents with offers of better salaries. The proximity and cultural similarities meant it was a move Portuguese players such as Luis Figo were happy to make. And when Cristiano Ronaldo stated that his dream was to play for Real Madrid, it illustrated how Spanish cultural imperialism influences Portugal.

Current economics dictate that stars of the Portuguese league often move to Spain. Six of their squad: Miguel (Valencia), Duda (Malaga), Pepe (Real) Simao and Tiago (Atletico Madrid) and Ronaldo play in Spain. Not one of the Spanish squad play in Portugal. Many South American, especially Brazilian, players first move to Portugal and then on to Spain if they do well. Portugal is a natural and geographic stepping stone. So much so that many start out playing for Maritimo or Nacional, two top-flight Portuguese clubs based on the Atlantic Island of Madeira, Ronaldo's home.

Brazilian-born players such as Adriano, Serginho, Paulo Assuncao and Pepe all started their European careers here. Both clubs have twice as many Brazilian players on their books than Portuguese. They are then likely to transfer to one of Portugal's big clubs before moving to Spain, though the Primera Liga is not the only destination if they are successful. Almost as many Portuguese players play in England's Premier League, proof that the Portuguese league is respected for producing players of the highest level. Several of the current crop of Benfica youngsters such as Angel Di Maria are more in demand than the products of comparatively sized Spanish clubs.

Porto have made more from selling players than any club in the world in the last decade. Many of the players on the field tonight know each other well. One, Simao, the Portugal winger, rates Spain as the favourites for the tournament. "They have been the strongest team in world football in the last three or four years, a young and yet experienced team," he said. Portugal remain confident. Their semi-final appearance in 2006 was better than Spain's best ever quarter-final appearance in 1950. Portugal also finished third in the 1966 tournament. They start tonight as slight underdogs against the European champions, though.

Politically, relationships between the countries are now closer than ever, with joint EU and Nato membership. A high-speed rail link is planned between Lisbon and Madrid, though there is still no direct highway between the two capitals Japan or Paraguay await the winners, as weak an opponent as a team could hope for in a World Cup quarter-final. Iberia expects much, though Spain took that name for it's national airline. That arrogant big brother? sports@thenational.ae

Key battle Cristiano Ronaldo v Joan Capdevila Portugal have employed Ronaldo as a forward, but he likely will start on the right, against the 32-year-old left-back Capdevila, for whom pace is not a strong point. Tactics So similar in terms of passing style, technique and ethos, this game could hinge on something special from one of several world-class players on the pitch. Previous meetings Portugal have won only five of their 32 meetings with Spain, but triumphed in their last encounter; a 1-0 victory in their Euro 2004 group match.