Spain vs. Portugal: the Iberian peninsula rivalry on the football field

The sports rivalry between Spain and Portugal, also dubbed “The Iberian War”, is among the oldest football rivalries. These two neighboring countries have played against each other since 1921.

The battle is not over yet, because they still compete to date in various football tournaments to establish which team is the best. Let us take you through everything about the Iberian Peninsula rivalry.

The rivalry

The rivalry between the two football nations began with a game in 1921, when Spain won 3-1 in what was the Portuguese national team’s first ever match. It moved on to the world cup qualifiers which were the first competitive games in March 1934. Spain beat Portugal by a humiliating scoreline of 9-0 in Madrid, but just a week later it was much closer as the Seleção lost 2-1 in Lisbon. In the 1950 World Cup qualifiers, Portugal also lost to Spain 5-1 away and drew 2-2 at home.

The first time the two countries met in tournament play was at the 1984 European Championship, with the game ending in a 1-1 draw. Portugal’s first true success (excluding friendlies) came at Euro 2004, when as the host country the Portuguese beat Spain 1-0 in the last group match, knocking their neighbours out of the tournament.

Spain would exact revenge at the 2010 World Cup, with Spain beating Portugal 1-0 in the round of 16 and the Spanish subsequently secured first place and won the World Cup.

Five months later, the two teams organised a friendly match won by Portugal 4-0. It was Spain’s most humiliating defeat in almost fifty years. But in the 2012 Euro semi-finals and the 2022 Nations League semi-finals, Spain again came out on top in two extremely tight matches. The Spanish won the former in a penalty shootout and the latter thanks to a late goal from Alvaro Morata.

In between these two encounter the two teams faced off in their opening match of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, playing out a classic 3-3 draw in which Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick. 

Star soccer players

Portugal have produced many successful football players on the world scene. One of them is Cristiano Ronaldo, who is still an active player at 38 years of age. He is among the most accomplished football players and a living legend. His goal-scoring ability, relentless work ethic, and athleticism have earned him several awards in his soccer career. Great teams he has played for include Sporting, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus.

Another football legend from Portugal is Eusébio, nick-named the Black Panther, known for his goal-scoring records in the 1960s. Ls Figo, Rui Costa, and Deco also helped to push Portugal’s national team to greater heights. Here is a list of other legendary Portuguese footballers:

  • Mário Coluna
  • Paulo Futre
  • Ricardo Carvalho
  • Vítor Baía
  • Bruno Fernandes

Spain has also produced a long list of great players who have been among the best footballers ever seen on the planet. Recent famous players include:

  • Xavi
  • Andres Iniesta
  • Iker Casillas
  • Sergio Ramos
  • Carles Puyol

UEFA European Championship

The UEFA European Championship is one of the most popular football tournaments, and Portugal has participated in it eight times. Their first appearance in the tournament was in 1984, and like their World Cup debut, they enjoyed a superb tournament, reaching the semi-finals.

As hosts in 2004, Portugal reached the final of the UEFA European Championship but lost to Greece. In 2016 the boot was on the other foot as the Seleção defeated France, the host nation to win a first major tournament.

Spain has a fine record in the UEFA European Championship, participating in the tournament eleven times and winning three titles in 1964, 2008 and 2012. Spain first played in UEFA Euro in 1964. It was played in Spain itself, and the hosts defeated the Soviet Union 2-1 to emerge as champions.

Spain is the only country to win the title twice running, in 2008 and 2012. They have won the title more times than any other country. Spain is followed by France with two titles while Denmark, Portugal, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Netherlands, Italy, and the Soviet Union have one title each.

FIFA World Cup

Portugal first qualified for the World Cup in 1966 and finished in third, which was a huge milestone. Also, Eusébio, one of the country’s legendary players, was top scorer at the tournament.

The country qualified again in 1986 but did not make it out of the group stage, and another poor performance in 2002 saw them fall at the first hurdle. At Germany 2006, Portugal came fourth after losing narrowly to France in the semi-finals, and being beaten by the host nation in the 3rd/4th place match. The 2010, 2014 and 2018 tournaments were all relatively disappointing for Portugal, but at the FIFA World Cup 2022 the Seleção reached the quarter-finals.

Despite qualifying consistently for the World Cup since 1978, Spain flattered to deceive at the tournament for many years before finally coming good and making themselves one of the FIFA World Cup champions. It is among the elite group of only eight national teams to win the title and has participated in 16 of the 22 total tournaments.

Spain won their first and so far only World Cup title ever in 2010 in South Africa, after years of failing to pass the quarter-final stage.

Head-to-head record

From the first match on 18th December 1921 to the recent football event on 27th September 2022, Portugal and Spain have played against each other 40 times. Spain have won 18 matches, Portugal 6, and there have been 16 draws.

However, Spain’s ascendency in these statistics is deceiving, owing much to their early development of the sport in the country in comparison to Portugal. Since 1956, the nations have played against each other 20 times, with each country winning 5 matches and 10 games drawn.

Final verdict 

The two countries have become more intertwined in terms of their football culture in recent decades, with several Spanish players and coaches representing Portuguese clubs and vice versa. Luís Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo reached the height of their fame while playing in Spain, the former for Barcelona and Real Madrid and the latter for Real Madrid. The current coach of the Portuguese national team is Spaniard Roberto Martínez.

As often happens with neighbouring countries, there is a strong rivalry in sporting terms, which has only intensified in recent years as both countries continue to churn out many of the biggest superstars of the game such as Portugal’s Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Rafael Leão, and Spain’s Gavi, Pedri and Rodri.

With a shared passion for the sport and boasting elite national teams it would be no surprise to see these two proud football countries go head-to-head again in upcoming tournaments as they strive to add to their storied histories.