This story originally was posted at BigAppleSoccer.com in September 2008

By Michael Lewis

MIAMI — When he sits down in front of his TV to watch Cuba take on the United States in a vital World Cup qualifier Saturday, Chivas USA forward Maykel Galindo will have some mixed emotions.

He still is in his prime as a soccer player — he’s 27-years-old — yet Galindo can’t do anything to help his former national teammates.

But Galindo wants to make one thing clear: He might live in the U.S., may have left Cuba for political asylum in this country, might have become a permanent resident and has plied his trade with an American soccer team. But he is rooting for Cuba.

“I played for the National Team for a long time and I hope Cuba can advance in World Cup qualifying,” he said. “I think in the last game against Trinidad and Tobago we had the opportunity to earn three points but now we have a new and very difficult game ahead. I know that the United States is the favorite and it’s going to be tough for the Cubans but I would like Cuba to win.”

Of course, stranger things and bigger upsets have happened in the soccer, such as the U.S. stunning a superior England side at the 1950 World Cup.

This will be the U.S. National Team’s first trip to Cuba since 1947, some 11 years prior to the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. The United States imposed an embargo in 1962 and diplomatic relations have been nil.

But Galindo, who is recovering from sports hernia surgery, expects the fans at Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana at 8 p.m. Saturday (ESPN Classic, Galavision) to treat the Americans with respect. Fans aren’t expected to spit or throw coins or batteries at the U.S. players, incidents that have occurred in Central American matches.

“I really don’t know how Cubans will receive the U.S. team, but I can assure you that there won’t be any disrespect toward the U.S. because Cuban fans just don’t act that way,” he said. “In a game environment they’ll yell stuff at you, but it’s the same as anywhere. They’re just supporting their team. But they won’t be disrespectful like throwing things at you or saying things during the national anthem.”

Galindo, however, said the atmosphere at the game will make it hard for any team to play up to its potential.

“Honestly, it is difficult because in your stadium, on your field, you learn to love what you have, you try to show your optimism for your team and fans,” he said in a recent e-mail interview. “The fans see themselves as the 12th man and they leave happy, so it’s hard for a foreign team to adjust to that atmosphere. I swear that Cuba could have gotten a better result on their home field against Trinidad and Tobago,”

The Cubans lost to Trinidad Aug. 20, 3-1.

Cuba hasn’t reached the World Cup in 70 years — since the third world championship in 1938. Yet, Galindo felt the Caribbean side can pull off an upset of the U.S.

“Yes – if Cuba is determined and if they have to the desire to win,” he said. “If they go into the game with the mentality of ‘We can’t let them score any goals against us,’ little by little things could fall into place and we might get a favorable result.”

Getting to South Africa is another matter entirely. Squandering a home game and not earning any points from it hurt Cuba. A loss would put the Cubans on a difficult path. The top two teams in Group 1 will qualify for the six-team round-robin CONCACAF final round in 2009 (the top three teams from that group will clinch a spot in the 2010 World Cup, with the fourth-place team meeting the fifth-place side from South America for a berth.

“It’s difficult to imagine Cuba qualifying for a World Cup right now,” Galindo said. “Whenever we manage to defeat an opponent in one of our home games in qualifying, the players often think that they can beat any other team in the world. But when we play the United States and they score four goals against us, then we realize we have to work much harder. We are still far from where we need to be to compete in a World Cup. We need preparation by competing at a high international level so we can grow more as soccer players. But then again – in soccer, anything can happen!

But Cuban soccer fans can always dream, can’t they? Galindo cited two other Caribbean countries who reached their World Cup quest in recent years — Jamaica, which qualified for France 1998, and Trinidad & Tobago, which reached Germany in 2006.

“If Cuba were to qualify to a World Cup I think it would be a big deal,” Galindo said. “In the past World Cup I watched Trinidad and Tobago qualify and I remembered having played against and defeated them. It made me think that if we were determined to win we could do it. Jamaica has also qualified for a World Cup … People know that we are not quite there yet, but when we see other teams that are not superior to us make it you think ‘why can’t we make it too?’ ”

OK, a quick scouting report on Cuba from someone who would know best, even if Galindo hasn’t played for the national side in three years.

According to Galindo, Cuba’s strengths are “set pieces. . . . tall defenders who are good in the air and have a nose for the goal. It will be tough on [Cuba’s] midfield and forward lines. But above all it’s the desire to win that will keep Cuba in the game.”

And the Cubans’ weaknesses?

“I’ve always said that all of Cuba’s biggest mistakes in soccer have been their naivete – the naivete that we have, because of a lack of experience in international competition,” he said. “We play well, but in the end we make a mistake that prevents us from living.”

In some respects, the status of Cuban soccer can be defined by shirts and jerseys. That’s correct — the shirts the fans wear and the jerseys the National team cannot trade with players from other teams after international matches.

“If you pay close attention and look at the stands, you won’t see supporters groups wearing the jersey, or singing, like they do in MLS,” Galindo said. “In Cuba you simply can’t buy the national team jersey, so fans can’t show their support by wearing the team’s official colors.”

After the game, players cannot partake in the soccer tradition of trading shirts because the Cuban Soccer Association cannot afford to replace the shirts.

“When a player scores a goal and the game ends he really can’t give his shirt to the fans because it’s the only one he’s got,” he said. “You pretty much play the whole year with the same jersey. If someone wants to exchange jerseys, like in the Gold Cup, you can’t because otherwise you won’t have anything to wear for the next match! It’s a bit difficult, so when you get [to the U.S.] you see the differences and you realize that, in Cuba, we still have a long way to go.”