Sun, Jun 20, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Spain-Portugal match fires up fans


Sipping Portuguese brandy after lunch in this whitewashed, fortress hill town 10km from Spain, three retired Spanish priests mulled over the European soccer championship.

They long to see Spain or Portugal win it.

"In sports, we still have a strong rivalry with Portugal," Aurelio Rodriguez said, cradling his glass with both hands. "But in other social things, we have perfect, neighborly relations with Portugal."

"When Spain plays Portugal, you almost want them both to win," Clarencio Garcia added.

Lasilado Rubio nodded in agreement, and Rodriguez offered a mock toast to a Spain vs. Portugal final.

That would be an Iberian Dream, the two playing for the title on July 4 in Lisbon. Because of the format, that's nearly impossible. So the big day is today when Portugal plays Spain in Lisbon. Portuguese player Pedro Pauleta has suggested it's a showdown "nobody wanted." At least not this soon.

Portugal hasn't beaten Spain for 23 years. They played nine months ago in Portugal, and Spain won 3-0 -- triggering depression across Portugal.

"It's a final," Pauleta said. "There's so much at stake for us. We're not favorites, but we can't let the country down again."

It was the 17th century when the last Spanish army attempted to invade this small town, nestled behind 1,000-year-old fortress walls. On Sunday, hungry Spaniards will stop here for lunch before finishing the 200km drive west to Lisbon.

The winner advances to the quarterfinals of the 16-team championship. Spain can also qualify with a draw, and even mathematically with a loss. At any rate, It will be a long night and a short drive home for the ousted team.

"Spain is the second team for us because we are so close," said Manuel Carvalho, assistant mayor of the town of 15,000 and host to a weekly show on Radio Elvas. "But in a game like this one, well of course we are for Portugal."

The border relationship is strongly commercial. Spaniards come over because it's cheaper eating out in Portugal. Portuguese like the cheaper shopping in nearby Badajoz, where a gigantic El Corte Ingles department store was built to draw shoppers from eastern Portugal. Free-shuttle buses ferry shoppers across the border.

"Restaurants and bars here rely on Spaniards for 50 percent of the business," Carvalho said. "We cater to the Spaniards, but overall there is absolutely no tension. The only resentment is the fact they are richer than we are."

The one niggle is language. Portuguese watch Spanish TV, and almost everyone along the border speaks some Spanish. The reverse is not true.

"We always try to speak Spanish to them, but the Spaniards never try back in Portuguese," said Isabel Caldeira, who works in the tourism office. "They think they are superior to us. I look at them as too high and mighty."

Asked if she'd ever support Spain, Caldeira scrunched up her nose.

"No, I'd always root for the other country."

Portugal is a smaller, poorer neighbor trying to prove itself. In a common stereotype, Portuguese see Spain as an arrogant bully. The Spanish seldom think about Portugal, looking to gain respect among larger nations like France and Germany.

Hoping to build up its national self-confidence, Portugal has invested about US$4.8 billion to stage the biggest sports event in its history. Fans and players are looking for any edge.

In a country where flags are seldom flown, millions have been sold. On the road to the Portuguese training camp, a huge billboard reminds of the 1385 Battle of Aljubarrota. Legend has it a baker woman wielding a shovel did her part to help defeat invading Spanish armies.

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