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Thursday, March 18, 2010
Portugal-Brazil rivalry heats up

By Gus Martins
Special to

Portugal midfielder Deco was born in Brazil before arriving in Portugal at age 19.

It didn't take long for simmering social tensions between Brazil and Portugal to be reignited after being drawn together in Group G. A tongue-in-cheek comment by Brazilian coach Dunga, who referred to the tiny sister nation as "Brazil's B team," served as the catalyst.

The fact that Portugal currently has three Brazilians on its roster has served as a bone of contention among a significant element of Portuguese afraid of ceding aspects of their national identity, especially to a nation to which their country gave birth, but which has since so dwarfed it in size, population, economy and cultural exportation.

So what immediately was seen as a centerpiece first-round match in Durban on June 25, featuring two of the world's most colorful teams, has also become somewhat of a lightning rod of controversy, pitting two countries that share a half-millennia of history, the same language and a boatload of unresolved issues.

"In Portugal's case we are dealing with a situation where, that for the second time in our history, we have Brazilian natives on the team," said Francisco Marcos, founder and chairman of the United Soccer League, who was born in Portugal and emigrated to the United States during his youth.

"For a long, long, time we had three players before [current midfielder] Deco who were not Portuguese citizens, but who became naturalized Portuguese," Marcos added. "That was back in the 1960s and early '70s. I remember it being controversial then, and it was controversial now. There's still a little bit of that false nationalism, if you will, when a non-Portuguese-born player plays for Portugal. … I can't fully explain it, and I can't fully justify the anti-feelings about it, but they are there."

Those anti-Brazilian sentiments come from the country's citizens, as well as from some former players like Luis Figo, Joao Pinto and Rui Costa, who in the past questioned whether the Brazilian players could ever really "feel" Portuguese. A recent injury to Pepe -- the Real Madrid defender who has become a cornerstone for Portugal and whose World Cup participation is now in jeopardy -- has given the naysayers quite a bit to think about.

The issue of being born on the soil of the country a player represents today is a relic of the past. Additionally, today's Portuguese team bears resemblance to the Brazilian team they will be facing. It has a number of players who hail from the "Creolized" or mixed-race world that Portuguese exploration beginning 500 years ago helped introduce in South America, Africa and Asia. Players like Nani, Rolando, Miguel and Silvestre Varela -- all either born on or from Cape Verdean Islands parentage -- made contributions to the team's qualification. Defender Jose Bosingwa has one parent from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he was born, and central defender Bruno Alves' father is Washington Alves, a Brazilian who played professionally in Portugal.

Marcos sees this as Portugal's contradictory alter ego. Citizens in the former Portuguese colonies like Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, which all became independent in the 1970s, still have a relatively close relationship with Portugal. Brazil, which gained independence nearly 200 years ago in a bloodless change of power, saw its bond to the mother country fade almost from its inception.

"The only players, generally speaking, that we accept as Portuguese are Africans," Marcos said. "That's just the way it is. It's actually hypocritical, but because of Portugal's colonial past, we consider African players Portuguese, whether they were white or black Africans. And that includes the coach." (Carlos Queiroz was born and raised in Mozambique.) "But if you look at players who come from African nations at a young age, they don't count; they are Portuguese."

Brazilian Luis Felipe Scolari -- formerly Portugal's coach, who occasionally was the butt of scorn during his successful six years in charge -- felt there was a bit of hypocrisy in Portugal when the Portuguese embraced Olympian Nelson Evora, the Olympic triple jump champion in 2008. Evora was born in Ivory Coast to Cape Verdean parents but arrived in Portugal at a young age and was unambiguously considered Portuguese and hailed for his accomplishments.

FIFA-registered sports agent Tony Araujo said Portuguese pride and nationalism are understandable given the country's small size, with 11 million inhabitants within its borders and perhaps another five million outside, scattered throughout the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Venezuela, South Africa, France and other Western European nations.

"I think they fear that if something is not done there will only be two or three Portuguese-born players on the team sometime in the future," said the New York City resident. "That in 10 years they might not be called a national team. Competing in the World Cup gives you a sense of national pride. But if your team is filled with Africans from various countries, or Brazilians, it defeats the purpose of having a national team.

"There might also be the fear that their country hasn't developed economically and technologically like Brazil has in the recent past," he added. "But when it comes to soccer, for a small nation, they are really great at it. The evidence is there when you look at how many Portuguese players play on many of the great clubs in Europe."

While Deco and Pepe moved to Portugal as teenagers, it is likely they could have gotten called into the Brazil team once they had solidified their reputations as top players. Other players, like striker Mario Jardel, opted to play for Brazil. Jardel -- who scored 166 goals in 169 appearances for Portuguese club Porto in all competitions from 1996 to 2000 -- perhaps traded in a long international career with Portugal for one with Brazil, where he played only 10 times while scoring once.

Marcos said aside from nationalistic reasons there are visceral circumstances that have to be considered when looking at the relationship between the two countries.

"It's a love-hate relationship, I'm tempted to say," Marcos said. "There are hundreds of thousands of Portuguese in Brazil and tens of thousands of Brazilians in Portugal. There is the tension that surrounds the jobs lost in Portugal. Brazilians seem to use Portugal as their entry point into Europe, and pressures come with that.

"Also, Portugal is stuck in a situation where it is a small country, very proud and never had a lot of immigrants until the EU came around," he said. "Now we have Eastern Europeans, Africans -- and not just from the former colonies -- and there's a new reality that has to be accepted, and it takes a couple of generations to do that."

The support Portugal is likely to get from the nearly 500,000 people of Portuguese descent who live in South Africa could be a compelling factor in the group stage, which also includes Ivory Coast and North Korea.

"If you add all of these things to the mix, the Brazil-Portugal game becomes a more interesting dilemma, to say the least," Marcos said. "You don't want to play the odds-on favorites or the co-favorites, whatever, in the first round if you can avoid it, but especially in the case of so-called sister countries."

Gus Martins is a freelance writer who has covered two World Cups and MLS for more than a decade.