Odelin Molina was a pillar in the Cuban net for many years. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Sometime in the next 10 days, a pillar of the Cuban national team will walk off the field one last night.
Veteran goalkeeper Odelin Molina doesn’t know if it will be in the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Gold Cup against Panama in Atlanta, Ga. Saturday, the semifinals or even the final.
Molina, who turns 39 Aug. 3, will hang up his gloves when the final whistle is sounded in one of those games.
When an emotional Molina spoke about his impending retirement earlier this week, a tear went down the side of his face. “It will be very sad for me,” he said. “The hope is to qualify for the next round. I know personally I gave it my all, as well as my teammates on the field.”
He later added: “It’s hard. It hurts me, retiring. It’s a very hard time for me.”
You might not have heard about Molina too much because he doesn’t play for a football country or a country that traditionally goes deep in World Cup qualifying. Cuba is better known for baseball.
Molina’s career has spanned eras and he has been a regular since he donned Cuba’s colors for the first time on the first team May 12, 1996 in a 1-0 FIFA World Cup qualifying win over the Cayman Islands. His international career includes 25 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, 14 Gold Cup matches over six competitions, which could very well be a record for a goalkeeper and serving under seven coaches.
Some of his brightest moments at the Gold Cup came more than a decade ago. At the age of 27 in 2002, Molina stood on his head to keep Cuba within striking distance of the United States and Korea Republic, holding the Americans to a 1-0 result on their own soil, and backstopping a scoreless draw with the Asian side. A year later, he earned a clean sheet in a 2-0 victory over Canada.
That turned out to be the last shutout and win that Molina recorded at the Gold Cup before Cuba blanked Belize, 4-0, Tuesday to secure a position in the knockout round.
“He’s a great player, a great athlete, an athlete who has supported us on the playing pitch,” Cuban forward Jose Ciprian said. “He’s helped everybody individually.”
Defender Jorge Luis Clavelo has appreciated what the veteran keeper has brought to the team.
“I feel very confident to have him on the backline with us,” he said. “We feel that he gives us a security that’s always there. In terms of his impending retirement, it’s obviously very sad, but it’s something we welcome. He’s a key to Cuban soccer going forward.”
Molina has stated that he wants to go into coaching when he retirements, with his ultimate goal of directing the Cuban national side.
“To play football or to work in football is the only thing I know in life,” he said. “After my retirement, my dream is to become coach of the national selection, not goalkeeping coach, but the main coach of the national selection. It’s my dream.”
Molina said that he has learned a tremendous amount about the game with virtually all of the action happening in front of him.
“Being in front of the pitch, in front of the players in the goal has prepared me to be a coach,” he said. “In my position I can see the pitch and order the players. Playing many years as a goalkeeper has prepared me to be a good coach.”
There should be very little problem with the transition to the sidelines, Cuba coach Walter Benitez said.
“I feel he’s very strong,” he said. “He’s given us an enormous amount of confidence backing us up. In terms of his pending retirement, I feel this could be his last tournament, but even if comes in as a manager, or an assistant, he would be able to help us tremendously. We have two young keepers so I think he would be a tremendous help to the team.”
The Cubans certainly were an inspired side Tuesday. Needing a four-goal victory to earn a quarterfinal berth, they did exactly that with their Group C victory in East Hartford, Conn.
“For me, it was like winning the World Cup,” said Cuban midfielder Ariel Martinez, who recorded his first international hat-trick. “It was a great achievement for us and made me very happy.”
Jeniel Molina scored the final goal two minutes into stoppage time as the entire Cuban bench raced onto the field to celebrate.
“We believe that this was the best game in the career of the national team,” Benitez said. “We definitely felt very, very excited to get this result. We felt very proud of what we did tonight. The players knew that was one of the things that were going to help us. We embraced our Cuban jersey, our Cuban flag.”
Odelin Molina will try to embrace his flag and jersey one more time Saturday.