Last year, the football editor of The Independent ran an article with a surprising headline: “Portugal ‘sells’ Ronaldo to Spain in £160m deal on national debt.” Less than ten days earlier, Portugal’s prime minister, José Sócrates, had resigned upon failing to enact a fourth round of austerity measures to make up a severe budget shortfall. For a country that The Independent described as “weighed down by debt, and reeling from the latest downgrading of [its] credit status,” the sale of soccer’s highest paid-player to the world’s finest team may have seemed like the best option on an increasingly short list.
Those readers who were obsessing at the time about the tempestuous European sovereign-debt crisis—or simply those who were more concerned about the day of the week (Friday) than the day of the year (April 1st)—would have been forgiven for missing the part about it all being an April Fools’ Day joke. Portugal wouldn’t (and, per FIFA rules, couldn’t) end up selling its star player—and ultimately arranged a $116 billion EU bailout one month later.
These days, all the news—both soccer and bailout-related—is coming from that other Iberian country: Spain. Having fielded the top-ranked team in the sport for all but a sliver of the past four years, and as one of the most recent nations to accept emergency aid, Spain soars on the pitch even as its banks sink farther under water. In fact, in the span of nine days earlier this month, Spain managed to play three soccer games, win its Euro 2012 group, and receive a $125 billion bailout. But who’s counting?
Probably Portugal, who faces Spain today in the semi-finals of the tournament. For countries that speak different languages, the two have a lot in common. In rough order of national importance: a border, a peninsula, an ocean, a climate, similar economic crises, kinetic soccer teams. What could not be more different, though, is their teams’ respective styles of play.
Spain is more balanced than the food pyramid; Portugal is driven by a single tank disguised as a Ferrari. One side has the fearsome collective of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Silva, et al.; the other has Cristiano Ronaldo. Watching Spain is to audit a master class in passing, to witness a meditation on beauty; seeing Ronaldo play is to receive a crash course in individualism, to observe the best (and for all intents and purposes, best-looking) footballer in Europe.
But it is rarely wise to depend on a single player (see pre-Wade Lebron James), no matter how lethal he may be. Portugal has discovered this the hard way, through an even mix of premature exits and late-tournament meltdowns in the last eight years. Which is why I don’t think Spain would have taken up Portugal’s offer of Ronaldo—even if it had been able to foot the bill—having learned long ago that familiar expression about teamwork: There is no “yo” in “equipo.”