Though the final match of the Round of 16 at South Africa 2010 pits neighbours Spain and Portugal against each other for the first time at a FIFA World Cup™ final tournament, the two sides’ footballing history has been inextricably linked for many years.
As any follower of the beautiful game is aware, rivalries between clubs and national sides generally grow fiercer the closer they are. As a result expectations are already soaring ahead of 29 June’s meeting between neighbours Portugal and Spain in Cape Town, with the winner securing a place in the quarter-finals of the world’s most prestigious football competition.
Eighty-nine years on from the two countries’ first meeting in international football, a 3-1 friendly win for Spain in Madrid in 1921, comes arguably the most important clash in the fixture’s history. And it is a history during which Spain have generally had the upper hand, with a notable example coming in qualifying for Italy 1934. La Roja consigned Portugal to their second-heaviest defeat of all time in a 9-0 thumping in Madrid, which they followed up a week later with a 2-1 success in Lisbon. It was a similar story on the road to Brazil 1950, with Spain winning 5-1 at home before a 2-2 draw in the Portuguese capital.
Narrowing the gapFor many years, those four matches were the only ones between the two nations in competitive action. That is, until 1984, when the pair shared a 1-1 draw in the group phase of that year’s UEFA European Championship, a result that sent both teams through to the semi-finals. Twenty years later it was a different story, with a solitary goal from Nuno Gomes handing Portugal a vital 1-0 win in the teams’ last group game at EURO 2004, a tournament which ended with defeat for *A Selecção das Quinas *in the final against Greece.
That was the last competitive meeting in a shared history containing 32 matches overall, with neither team having played any other opponent as many times at senior international level. La Roja have the edge with 15 wins to five for Portugal, though the gap between the two has narrowed markedly over the recent past. Indeed, Spain have beaten the Portuguese just once and suffered three reverses in 12 games over the last 30 years, that sole victory coming in a pre-EURO 2004 warm-up game.
The fact eight of those dozen matches ended in draws is a clear illustration of just how well-matched the Iberian pair have become. What's more, on one side you have the 2008 European champions and on the other the team which finished continental runners-up in 2004 and fourth at Germany 2006. With so little to choose between the neighbours and rivals, what price the result coming down to one mistake or one moment of genius?