Spain, Portugal World Cup stars united by Premier League exposure
It doesn't matter that Spain haven't yet travelled to Russia and have a final warm-up fixture, against Tunisia, to play. Already, the 2010 World Cup champions have themselves focused on Portugal -- not just because La Roja's opening game is a guarantee of Iberian ire, jealousy, tension and bragging rights, but because the premium for the Group B winner is absolutely enormous.
Whoever tops this group containing the Cristiano Ronaldo XI, La Roja, Iran and Morocco earns the dramatic advantage of limited, predictable and reliable travel to the round of 16, quarterfinal, semifinal and then the promised land. Luzhniki Stadium in Russia's capital on July 15.
Spain's objective, obviously, is to play in Moscow, Sochi, Moscow and Moscow again during the knockout games rather than the much more tortuous, significantly more tiring and more complicated Sochi-Nizhny Novgorod-St. Petersburg-Moscow route.
Trust me: In tournaments, players like "known" conditions and despise the kind of road bumps that can come with new routes, new hotels, new training grounds or unfamiliar pitches. I'll remind you that Spain's three recent victorious tournaments stemmed from the following: two matches in Innsbruck then three in Vienna in 2008, four games in and around Johannesburg plus two in Durban while winning the World Cup ... then three group games in Gdansk and two in Donetsk while re-conquering Europe in 2012.
You can see the pattern, right? The less tiring the travel, the better. The more that quality players are asked to perform in "known" conditions, the more they feel in control. And so winning the group is paramount.
Spain and Portugal have met just three times in tournament competition with the margins so far on a razor's edge. A 1-0 win for Portugal in 2004, 1-0 to Spain in 2010 and a 0-0 draw settled on penalties, in Spain's favour, in 2012. Tense, high stakes games with no room for errors.
In the latter two games, there has naturally been huge emphasis placed on the battle between Gerard Pique and Cristiano Ronaldo. Each cut his teeth far from home as a raw, homesick kid at Old Trafford and Manchester United's Carrington training ground. That their rivalry has subsequently developed as vociferous, iconic, marquee players at Barcelona and Real Madrid, on either side of the Clasico divide, has given the story wings.
Their clashes are legendary. The 2009 Champions League final in Rome. Barca beating Ronaldo's Madrid 5-0 in 2010. Ronaldo heading the winning goal in the Clasico Copa del Rey final of 2011. Only a couple of weeks ago, the pair ended up tangled in Marc-Andre ter Stegen's goalnet as Ronaldo scored his side's Clasico equaliser.
Strangely enough, however, the link to the North West of England doesn't stop with the Pique-Ronaldo link. Not by a mile. In fact, to take their minds off worrying about England's competition debut against Tunisia three days later, you can expect large parts of Lancashire to be cheering for one side or other when Iberia does battle in Sochi on June 15.
Especially, of all places, Bolton. Rodrigo, born in Rio, trained at Real Madrid, nephew of 1994 World Cup winner Mazinho and proud of his background at Portugal's most successful club, Benfica, may lead the line for Spain against the reigning European champions.
That already sounds like a cosmopolitan background, right? Well he also benefitted from a season at Bolton Wanderers. That's right: the once-famous, working-class, industrial heartland club that has flirted with bankruptcy and were two minutes away from relegation to England's third tier at the end of this season is where Spain's starting centre-forward toughened up.
A couple of months ago, he was scoring for La Roja against Germany, who took Spain's world title away in 2014. Without his time at the Reebok, would that have come to pass? He doesn't think so.
"I was young and my [Benfica] coach Jorge Jesus preferred me to go on loan so that I could play more," said Rodrigo. "It was a spectacular year: The Premier League is unlike any other in the world. It was important for my evolution and also my physical condition. You need to be strong to play in England. I wasn't a regular starter for Bolton but I did get a lot of minutes. I enjoyed it."
Super odd? No. But it gets better.
Spain came very close to selecting Chelsea's left-back, Marcos Alonso, for this squad. Where did he immediately move once Real Madrid didn't have further use for him as a kid? Why, Bolton of course.
The foundation stone for this unlikely pipeline was Real Madrid's imposing, steely and legendary sweeper, Fernando Hierro, who swapped his status as Bernabeu and La Roja royalty for a season at Bolton Wanderers just over a decade ago. Hierro is now the director of football for the Spanish FA, effectively in charge of national team coach Julen Lopetegui, and it's a job he did back when Spain began their spree of three straight senior tournament wins.
I remember talking to this proud, elegant man who was part of Spanish football's "Ancien Regime" about his time at the Reebok Stadium. In the knowledge that Bolton trained at pretty makeshift pitches back then, places where there weren't even showers and the players decanted, covered in mud, to a few mini-buses that took them back, still booted, to the stadium for showers, I expected Hierro to be sniffy about his time in North West England.
"England breathes pure football. It was a noble time, the dressing room was like the United Nations but the people were so in love with football in its purest sense that I loved my time there. It was a really beautiful stage in my career and I think I was lucky to experience English football. I loved the culture."
There lies the rub.
Spanish players were once dead set against leaving their league and the cold, the wet, the language, the darker days, the alien culture, the food -- all of it mitigated against England being the destination. But once pioneers like Fernando Morientes, Gaizka Mendieta, Pepe Reina and Hierro spoke glowingly about the attractions of England (Lancashire included), the trickle became a flow.
Is it a coincidence that this coincided with Spain adding steel, know-how and aggression to their golden era of trophy lifts beginning in 2008? I don't believe it was.
The Spanish school of football had all the technical gifts, strategy and intelligence, but in England they learned new ideas and new grit, all of it at the greatest pace and intensity. Once that transferred to the international set-up, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. It's not an argument unknown to Spain's Iberian rivals, either.
Of the Portugal side that won Euro 2016, several of that squad -- Ronaldo, Nani, Ricardo Quaresma, Ricardo Carvalho and Jose Fonte -- matured and toughened in the Premier League. Did that help them to Portugal's first senior trophy? I'd say so, clearly.
If all goes as planned, David Silva and David De Gea, split by the two colours of Manchester but now united for La Roja, will start for Spain in Sochi. Each is considered world-class, each has won many trophies and each has flowered in the north west of England. The theme continues.
Not that it's easy there, mind you; nor have Manchester, Preston or even Liverpool (a little further afield) been beds of roses for the Iberians who opted for a Lancashire football education.
I remember staff at Manchester United telling me about how Ruud Van Nistelrooy reduced the young Ronaldo to tears, taunting him in training about how he seemed to have a "second" father in Carlos Queiroz. CR7 wouldn't be the tough nut he is today without that experience or the tough love he had to endure from three of the men who became some of his biggest fans: Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand and Sir Alex Ferguson. And it's with Fergie that we can draw these strands together.
Pique may have grown mentally, physically and experientially while living in Manchester, but that doesn't mean that Bolton again didn't leave an imprint. A negative one this time. His performance against Ronaldo next week will heavily impact on who wins this game but they were together when the Catalan suffered one of the worst set-backs of his career.
As he explained it to the Players' Tribune: "Sir Alex Ferguson was like a second father to me. He made me earn it, but eventually he gave me my chance.
"In 2007, after two years in England, he told me that I was going to play about 25 games that season. Everything started well. I was getting to play a bit alongside Rio. And then, in November, we went to play in Bolton. S---... I can still picture the ball floating in the air.
"It was a set piece. I was supposed to be marking Nicolas Anelka. Bolton chipped the ball into the box and I thought, I'm going to be aggressive. I jumped up to head the ball away and I completely missed it. It was like something out of a nightmare. The ball just... kept... floating right over my head like a balloon. I landed and turned around in horror. Anelka controlled the ball and scored easily. We ended up losing 1-0, and it was my fault.
"As a young defender, when you make a mistake like that the manager simply cannot trust you anymore. I could tell, literally at the moment that Anelka controlled the ball, that I had lost the faith of Sir Alex, and probably the faith of most United fans."
I suspect neither Ronaldo nor Pique will have time to spare a thought for those years spent in the rain, mud and intense culture of the Premier League. But we will definitely see evidence of the marks that experience left on them. When Iberia does battle in Southern Russia, spare a reflective moment to think of northwest England and its influence on this most cosmopolitan match.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.