The Battle For Iberia: Spain vs Portugal

As a select group of mid-range Australian soap actors have been telling us for over 25 years now, everybody needs good neighbours. In football, however, it is a message often unheeded. You will never find Brazil doing Argentina any favours, nor will England and Scotland every lay their Home-Nations hostilities to rest. Spain and Portugal will engagle battle for regional supremacy at Euro 2012, yet any neighbourly courtesy that may have been forged in the last few years will evaporate as a shot at Europe’s biggest prize beckons.

Occupiers of that same vibrant and varying Iberian peninsula, the histories of Spain and Portugal naturally intertwine. Just as an argument with an overly noisy neighbour and the subsequent attempts at reconciliation are inevitable, so to do the relations between the two hit dips and peaks as history progresses. Expansive powers from the 15th Century onwards, territorial power battles defined the relationship as both fought tit-for-tat for colonial dominance well into the 1800’s, with the near 30-year long Portuguese Restoration War of the 17th Century marking a null in relations.

As much in football as in diplomacy, the history of the relationship is marked by notable similarities despite the glaring rivalry. Both crumpled as global powers with the loss of colonies at the same time; both persisted with right-wing dictatorships in the aftermath of World War Two which submitted to democracy and liberalisation at roughly the same time.

One offshoot of dictatorship would be the the pouring of resources into each nation’s capital clubs in search of increasing national pride through football. Real Madrid and Benfica emerged as benefactors of this, controlling the early years of competitive European football: Benfica becoming the first side to break Madrid’s dominance of the European Cup with two successive victories and three more finals in the 1960’s. Both clubs would suffer a lean spell in Europe as political unrest saw a period of transition ensue. Madrid, of course, would recover to become Europe’s leading superpower, whilst Benfica have failed to recapture their early promise – another startling parallel which can be seen in the fortunes of their respective national teams.

Whilst the clubs of Portugal and Spain have been salient forces in the formative years of European football and beyond, the two national sides have regularly failed to imprint an impact upon the international game in the same way.

Until Spain’s emergence as the all-conquering force of international football, their only previous success had come at the European Championship of 1964, whilst Portugal’s greatest achievement was flunking to Greece on home soil at Euro 2004.

Meetings between the two have largely mirrored their parallel fortunes. Spain largely hold the upper hand overall, though in contemporary times Portugal have been seen to begining to exert greater control over the Iberian Peninsula.

At the aforementioned Euros of 2004, hosts Portugal battled their way to a first victory in 23 years over the Spanish, Nuno Gomes’ goal seeing his side through whilst simultaneously confirming the elimination of an underperforming Spain. It appeared to be a new dawn for Portuguese football; finally the chance to seek retribution over their old rivals after years of secondary status.

La Roja would, of course, put any such assumptions to bed in due course. Having at last thrown off the shackles of years of underachievement at Euro 2008, Spain went to South Africa in 2010 in search of greater glory. The first of four successive 1-0 victories en route, Spain saw off Portugal in the Round of 16, David Villa ensuring Portugal’s early flurry of missed chances did not go unpunished.

After a string of tense, tight affairs in previous year, just four months after Spain’s historic victory in South Africa they were quickly humbled by the Portuguese. In a Lisbon friendly, a full strength Spain were largely humiliated 4-0 by a pernicious Portugal, suggesting once more that a constantly shifting power battle was once going through another stage of adjustment.

Marked by a curious mix of similarity and disparity, the two political, cultural and footballing histories run along comparative lines yet the desire to dominate the Iberian Peninsula is one which prevents any form of apathy breaking loose. Though Spain has managed to throw off their underachiever tags, previously they had mirrored Portugal’s position as nearly-men, potential unfulfilled.

Portugal still carry with them the ghosts of Eusebio and of 2004, of what could have been. The time has come for Portugal to again reverse the tides of Iberian fortune, in the same way they have strived to do so for centuries: what better way to do so than against their neighbours?

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