Sunday, 27 June 2010

The eternal neighbours: Spain v Portugal, Ronaldo v Torres, Cape Town, Tuesday. Their first ever World Cup showdown

Spain and Portugal. Eternal neighbours. They share 754 miles of Iberian border and still squabble over the area between the Caia and Cuncos rivers, an argument going back to 1801. And that was before anybody had heard of Eusebio.

Statistically, Spain – a nation of 45,555,716 people and 194,883 square miles - are the big brother. Portugal offer a population 10,622,413 with an area of 35,500 square miles. But on Tuesday at 8.30pm local time, it comes down to 11 men each fighting it out on an area of less than two acres bordered entirely by the brand new Green Point Stadium, boasting an expected population of 66,000.

We can reduce it still further. Cape Town, as always in a World Cup showdown of this calibre, will be focused on the goalden couple. Cristiano Ronaldo, the most expensive man in world football when he moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid last summer, and Fernando Torres, who used to have the nicest hair in world football before his current cadet crop.

Ronaldo, emerging unscathed from a shin-shuddering clash with Brazil captain Lucio in Durban last Friday, has been voted Man of the Match three times in three games at South Africa 2010 – but managed just one of Portugal’s seven Group G goals. He admits: “Three or four players have deserved those awards more than me. I do not enjoy playing as a lone striker up front, but the coach knows what he’s doing.

“The most important thing about the draw with Brazil is that we have qualified for the next stage. We would like to have topped the group but a draw was a fair result, that’s about it.

“We don’t fear anybody. The team has full confidence of performing well. Spain are a great side but if we perform well then we can knock them out of the World Cup.

“I am confident of providing more to this team and we will try to win against whoever comes. It has been our dream to win the World Cup and right now we are on the right path.”

Spain appear less confident. Torres, allegedly unsettled at Liverpool and still recovering from a knee operation, has been playing second fiddle to David Villa and Andres Iniesta so far. He says: “Personally speaking, I am very happy to have played but we need to practice a bit more with this (ultra-light) Jabulani because we are having a bit of bother with it.

"We have managed to turn things around after the opening defeat against Switzerland. If we go down we will do so remaining true to our ideas. We mustn't go crazy and start changing things, but retain our confidence in our qualities.

"We're not going to start playing a long ball game or being cagey and staying back. That is not the Spanish way."

Incredibly, the Iberians have never met in the World Cup finals before. And neither of these great footballing nations has ever won the beautiful game’s greatest prize.

Spain, the reigning European champions, have reached the quarter-finals five times – in 1934, at home in 1982, 1986, 1994 and 2002, when they went out controversially to hosts South Korea on penalties.

Portuguese people of around my age believe they should have won it in 1966 when they offered Eusébio – born in South Africa’s neighbour Mocambique - José Torres, Mário Coluna and António Simões. Again, they were stopped by the hosts, England, in the semi-final at Wembley when a balding lad called Bobby Charlton scored both goals.

Since then? Seven times they’ve failed to qualify, twice they failed to emerge from their group – but in Germany four years ago they finished fourth with winking Ronaldo inspiring that epic quarter-final win over England.

Something has to give. Spain are ranked second by FIFA coming into this World Cup, and they edged out Chile to top Group H with six points despite a nervous opening defeat against Sepp Blatter’s Switzerland. Portugal, ranked third, also suffered a nervous opening – 0-0 against the Ivory Coast – but bounced back with a 7-0 hammering of North Korea before that awful Friday night stale-mate against Brazil in Durban.

Ronaldo, the former darling of the Stretford End before his £80m move to the Bernebeu, is backed by household names like Deco, Ricardo Carvalho, Bruno Alves and Pepe. Portugal also have an ex-pat South African population of over a million behind them here.

Liverpool’s former Atletico Madrid star Torres can rely on an even stronger playing cast, Xavi, David Villa, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Iker Casillas – plus a growing following of locals.

All we can hope for is that the Iberian neighbours don’t reproduce Friday night’s fare, ridiculously described as “a feast of football” by Portgual coach Carlos Queiroz, who used to manage Bafana Bafana. No wonder they parted company.

This is knock-out football, where 0-0 is not an option. Though history suggests otherwise – no side has ever won the World Cup after losing their opening game – Torres issues the final word: “We know how to can pick ourselves up and we can still win the tournament.”

Neal Collins is in South Africa to promote his World Cup novel A GAME APART, currently No24 on Amazon's African best-sellers list. For more information see

To see Neal speak at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown next week, go to:

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