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Spain overcomes Portugal as their fans banter with friendly rivalry


CAPE TOWN -- After centuries of animosity, the relationship between Spain and Portugal is these days collegial, and even fraternal. The Iberian nations now rather like each other, and harmoniously collaborate, among other things, on the extinguishing of forest fires. So the atmosphere outside Cape Town's Green Point Stadium before Tuesday night's World Cup Round of 16 clash between the countries was not so much reminiscent of Texas versus Oklahoma -- and certainly not England versus Germany -- as it was of an extended family's resumption of an annual Thanksgiving touch football game. Gentle and good-natured trash-talk prevailed, and fans from both sides seemed rather fond of screaming the word "Ole!".

"The 'toro' is going to die today!" said Nelio Dos Reis, a smiling 31-year old Portuguese builder who wore a fright wig that was half red and half green. "We're going to kill it. They've got a good side, but not against us.

"We've got a good relationship, because we're neighbors," Dos Reis added. "But today, there's going to be blood."

On the other side of things was Jordi Alargos, a 25-year old policeman from Barcelona, who expressed a typically superior Spanish view of the country's neighbors to the west. "Portugal persons want to be Spanish," he said. Of Spain's prospects on Tuesday night, he added, "Spain is going to have the ball all the time. Portugal cannot win -- it is impossible."

The biggest pre-game boasters, to be fair, might have been among the thousands who donned either side's red without having a clear attachment, at least as far as their own citizenship. (Tickets to the game were on Facebook being offered for nearly twice face value -- $260 for a seat that was initially sold for $140). "All that the Portuguese are good at is making peri-peri chicken and fish and chips," said one fan who has the word "ESPANA" painted in capital letters across his forehead. Of the Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo, he said, "He's more of a model than a football player. Takes off his shirt, shows his six-pack. Portugal's a good side, but Spain has the stars. Portugal don't have a chance. They're going home crying tonight." Eventually, it emerged that this most passionate of Spain fans was actually a 24-year-old employee of a Cape Town pharmaceutical company named Bashier Enoos. "I just like the way they play," he said, with a shrug. "David Villa is going to score a hat trick tonight."

A single goal proved to be enough for Spain and for Villa, the faux-hawked striker who this season played for Valencia. Spain gradually worked away at Portugal -- in the first half alone they controlled the ball 62 percent of the time (Alargos was right) -- until finally, in the 63rd minute, Villa produced another of his brilliant strikes, releasing first a leftfooted rocket, then gathering the carom off the body of Portugal keeper Eduardo and calmly depositing the ball into the back of the net. It was Villa's fourth goal of this tournament, tying him for the lead and making him a firm favorite for the Golden Boot. Spain gently ran out the clock on its neighbors from there, assuring itself of what ought to be, on paper, a favorable quarterfinal match against Paraguay on Saturday in Johannesburg.

Afterwards, Spanish fans were gracious in defeat -- "Ole!"-ing quite a bit, honking their vuvuzelas enthusiastically, but not exactly rubbing it in. "Portugal plays good football, but the level is simply different," said Rodrigo Diez, a 31-year old native of Madrid who has made the eminently wise decision to practice dentistry in the Canary Islands. "Years ago, there was a real rivalry. Now we're brothers. That's not to say we're sorry we won -- we're very happy. But I'd root for Portugal against almost every other team there is. Especially if it was the French."

That, to be sure, was a sentiment on which everyone at Green Point Stadium tonight -- Portuguese, Spanish and those who love them -- could agree.