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Destination: South Africa
Posted by Jayaditya Gupta on 06/29/2010

A coach displays the allied aims of Spain and Portugal. © Getty Images

At the bustling Long Street Cafe the battle lines are drawn emphatically, if covertly. Red is the prevailing colour, of course, with green and yellow marking the boundaries of Iberian affiliation. Another marker makes itself known when the day’s first game kicks off: there’s loud cheering from some of the patrons when Paraguay attack but others sit stonily silent.

At Green Point Stadium, closer to kick-off, the boundaries are less sharply defined. The vagaries of FIFA’s ticketing system means Iberia largely sits en bloc, though there are pockets of yellow and green. The last time Portugal played here, a week ago, they annihilated North Korea in front of a large posse of travelling fans. It seems most of those fans have gone home but there’s still a sizeable cheering squad, thanks to Portugal’s historical ties with South Africa dating back to the days of Vasco da Gama.

“We are proud to be Portuguese fans,” says Jose, a supermarket worker who’s come with his wife Linda. He missed the North Korea game - she didn’t - and has been itching for tonight. Isn’t the weather a put-off? “It’s cold but we’re all used to it,” he says. “And the pitch is wet, it will help the football.” Salvi, from Seville but now living in London, agrees. Then adds the rider: “It will help us more, though we don’t really need the help.”

Among the neutrals, there’s no contest – it’s the reign of Spain. “They just play so beautifully, don’t they?” says Chris, an England fan who’s driven down from Nairobi. He’s got over the blowout in Bloemfontein and is ready to cheer for La Furia Roja. “Portugal are good, Ronaldo is great, but Spain as a team just take it one level higher.”

He’s lucky, he has a ticket - bought several months ago. Not so lucky is Nikhil, an Indian software engineer now working in the US. He’s down on vacation but hasn’t been able to get a ticket. Why Spain? I ask him. “Fabregas, more than anything else. I’m an Arsenal fan so I’m a bit biased but the way Fabregas plays…I guess that’s the way the team plays, that’s why I love watching them.” He was last seen running off to the ticket office in the hope of striking lucky.

The rivalry on the pitch isn’t really reflected off it in the manner of, say, Japan and South Korea (though are there any surviving rivalries in this increasingly flat world?). Indeed, that flat world has seen Portugal’s two best players of the past 20 years play in Spain - one for both top clubs in Luis Figo - and Ronaldo is joined in the Portugal line-up by his Real Madrid teammate Pepe. There’s more: Carlos Quieroz, the Portugal coach, spent a year at Real Madrid as a successor to his opposite number, Vicente del Bosque.

Their footballing ties are deep enough for the two countries to put forward a joint bid for one of the two World Cups after Brazil - there’s a truck parked just outside the stadium that bears the diplomatic message of the bid. Politically, too, there is communion; opinion polls - at least in Portugal - suggest more takers than you’d think for a unification, with the capital in Madrid. It helps that Spain’s King Juan Carlos transcends boundaries - he spent much of his exile at the family home in Estoril, Portugal.

Eventually the rain holds up. The weather settles at 13 degrees but it seems more, there is none of the chilly wind that can subtract half-a-dozen degrees from the night temperature. The teams come out, the national anthems are shaded by the Spanish fans - though the rousing Portuguese chorus calling men to arms is stirring and reminiscent of Le Marsellaise. Once play gets underway the signs emerge pretty soon of how this night is going to end; indeed the Spanish have much more to cheer right through the game, and well before the end the oles ring out as the Spanish play their favoured passing game.

But the Portuguese fans have an ace up their sleeve: if the crowd seems unusually excited whenever Ronaldo gets the ball, it’s not just his usual wow factor - a large number of South Africans with Portuguese blood emigrated from Madeira, the same island their captain calls home. The “Marry Me” signs make their appearance but unfortunately the man himself does the disappearing act. When Villa gets his goal in it’s all over, you know there’s no way back for Portugal. Even old Vasco himself wouldn’t be able to plot a way out of this.

At the end I catch up again with Jose and Linda. He shrugs. “They were better. Good luck to them. Maybe they can go all the way.” Will he celebrate if Spain win the World Cup? “Of course. Not because it is Spain but because they play good football.” That 2018 bid has legs, then.

I try to catch Spanish fans but they are too caught up in the moment - and in a hurry to get to the nearest bar. There are several on my walk home, I’ll pop in and share a glass with them. Tonight’s the night for red.

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