The Cuban flag hovers over Estadio Pedro Marrero. (Keith Furman/FrontRowSoccer.com)
This is a story written by FrontRowSoccer.com Editor Michael Lewis after a visit to the Caribbean country in 2012.
By Michael Lewis
HAVANA — The only shots fired in this 21st century revolution will be at the goal.
The country that still revels in its great revolution of some 54 years ago, finds itself undergoing yet another one on the sporting landscape, although it is a more of the silent variety and might take longer to come to fruition.
While it might not be apparent given the struggles of the national team during World Cup qualifying last year or because of the lack of a professional league, but soccer has started to make inroads in Cuba.
This Caribbean country is better known for producing professional baseball players and world-class boxers over the years. But the seeds have been planted.
You only have to venture down a street in Cuba’s capital city and stumble into youngsters either kicking the ball around or even a father having a kick-about his son or daughter. Or you can go to a square or an open space where there is a good chance you will see students playing a five-side weekday game after school.
“It is for the love of the game,” one participant said. “I just love soccer.”
Slowly, but surely, this soccer revolution has begun to take hold.
“At this moment, football is liked like baseball in Cuba,” Cuba Football Federation president Luis Hernandez said through a translator. “The children, young people like football very much. If the national team of Cuba gets good results in this tournament [World Cup qualifying], more people will like football.”
During several World Cup qualifiers at Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana in 2012, Cuban supporters wore jerseys from Real Madrid and Barcelona, thanks to Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and even from the San Jose Earthquakes and New York Red Bulls in Major League Soccer.
So the tide is beginning to change, even if it is more generational, says former soccer player Hernan Garcia Gonzalez, a bartender at the Angel de Tejadillo, a soccer-oriented bar in Old Havana.
“For me, football is the most beautiful sport in the world, because you’re moving all the time,” he said. “I don’t like baseball because there is so much waiting around. When you walk around the streets, you see the kids playing much more soccer now. The old people still like baseball more, but the young people like soccer.”
Hernandez has seen the growth in organized soccer as well.
“We are very happy to see children playing in the streets,” he said. “And it’s not only in Havana. In the 16 Cuban provinces, there is a movement with around 600 children studying in sports schools and being trained by more than 1,000 physical training professionals. They are working to supply players. There is also a big movement in indoor football and women’s football. in Under-15, Under-17, Under-20, Under-23. There is a system of training, keeping these players in form for the international competitions.”
The increased interest in the game, however, has not jumped from the stands or the streets to the playing field, at least not yet.
Although Cuba received a first-round bye in the 2011 World Cup qualifying round, the Caribbean country struggled mightily, finishing last and fourth in Group C in the semifinal round, scoring but one goal, but allowing 10 en route to a 0–5–1 mark.
“With this defeat we say goodbye to the qualifying for 2014 World Cup and we shall take the remaining matches as preparation for the forthcoming Caribbean Cup,” former Cuba coach Alexander Gonzalez said after back-to-back losses to Honduras in September.
But as one door closed on the Cubans, another one opened — in the Caribbean Cup, a tournament that qualifies four Caribbean teams for the Concacaf Gold Cup, which is being held in the United States through July 28 (Cuba, which lost to Costa Rica, 3–0, on Tuesday night, plays the United States in Sandy, Utah on Saturday. Walter Benítez, who took over for Gonzalez, directed Cuba to its first Caribbean crown last December as it defeated Trinidad & Tobago, 1–0, in extratime.
Cuba’s participation and ultimate success in the Caribbean Cup could open up yet another can of worms that we will get to later.
But in the 21st century, Cuban soccer faces two major challenges in the ever changing world of international soccer — trying to develop players and there is no doubt talent is there — despite not having a professional level to spur the growth of the players — and keeping those players from defecting to the United States or even to other countries, if they so choose.
It is a dilemma that is not easy to solve, given the country’s Communist rule that forbids professional sports of any kind or allows its best players to play in Europe, South American or even in Central America or in other Caribbean countries.
“I want the football to be grow, not in the economic aspect, but improving the conditions of the pitches, the stadiums,” Hernandez said. “That’s the way I would prefer to develop to become professional football.”
Players who perform in the National Championship receive a modest stipend of $12 a month. It isn’t a princely sum, but it has been enough to live on.
“When I played in Cuba, I was at my limit,” said former Cuban international Yordany Alvarez, who plays for Real Salt Lake in MLS.
Money. It always comes down to money, doesn’t it? Without the proper funds, it is difficult to fund and build decent facilities in which to educate aspiring players about the beautiful game.
“We do nothing if we have the raw material, but we don’t know how to develop that raw material,” said journalist Alejandro Perez, who had defected from Cuba since this interview last year. “Yes I can think we have a potential to make a good league or good players. But the conditions are the biggest handicap.
“You don’t develop high level players playing in the streets. A lot of players, a lot of young kids practice football, but not in what you can consider a professional way or what you can consider a good way. Maybe that’s the biggest development for the football in Cuba.”
The problem is when the players get to a certain level, they want out. It seems that every time the Cubans venture to the U.S. for the Concacaf Gold Cup after doing well in the Caribbean Cup or in Olympic qualifying, they have players defect. It certainly would not be surprising if one or several players defect during the 2013 competition.
It has not been easy to find a way stop a major talent drain that has lasted a good decade. Eighteen international players — 16 men and two women — have left the National or Olympic teams while Cuba has played in tournaments in the United States and Canada since 2002.
The losses include forward Rey Angel Martinez, who became the first player to defect, Seattle Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who has become a U.S. citizen and is trying to get permission to play for the National Team, Real Salt Lake midfielder Yordany Alvarez and former Montreal Impact forward Eduardo Sebrango, who is allowed to return to the Caribbean island after marrying a Canadian woman, but is still banned from playing for the Cuba national side.
“The players who have left by themselves, it was their decision,” Hernandez said in an interview a few years ago. “They left the team when they were supposed to defend their country.”
Asked how much of a drain there was of quality players, Hernandez responded, “What I can say, we have many talented players we have here ready to play for us in Cuba. We have great young players.”
But they keep leaving the country.
Alonso said he never second-guessed his decision, even though he realized he might not ever talk to family or friends again.
“It was extremely difficult because I did leave all my family in Cuba,” he said. “I saw my future as a professional soccer player. I wanted to play professionally. This was an opportunity that I had. My family understands.”
Former Cuban international Makyel Galindo, an ex-player with Chivas USA and FC Dallas in MLS who last performed for the Los Angeles Blues in USL PRO, disagreed with Hernandez.
“I think it has hurt the Cuban national team to have many of the players that left the team,” he said in an email interview. “I am not just saying it because of myself but because of the young players from the U-23 who left the national team because they were talented and they were the better players.”
Galindo said that sometimes a chance to play professionally and raising one’s standard of living was more important that playing for one’s country.
“I don’t feel guilty for leaving my team,” he said. “I didn’t talk to anyone about it beforehand, and I decided it on my own.”
Like other Cubans who left, Galindo said his was a desire to play professionally.
“They leave Cuba because they want to make something out of their lives,” he said. “They are in search of the dream of playing soccer at a professional level and they know that Cuba will not offer them that. They do it because they feel that their family will be proud of them if they make it to the professional level and many of those players have realized that they can achieve that goal. Thankfully, in my case, doors were being opened to me.”
While many people see the Caribbean island as a baseball country, Cuba has enjoyed a soccer history going back a century.
Two years ago the country celebrated the 100th anniversary of its first game — when Hautey, a team composed of Cubans and Spaniards, played Rovers, a British team, on Dec. 11, 1911.
Four Cubans — brothers Armando, Mario and Jose Giralt and Antonio Sanchez Neyra — performed on the first Real Madrid team in Spain in 1902.
The Cubans participated in their first and only World Cup in 1938, reaching the quarterfinals in France, defeating Romania in a replay, 2–1, after playing to a 3–3 draw before it was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Sweden, 8–0.
When there was a professional league, the 1930’s to the 1950’s are considered the glory days as many Spanish players came to play and live on the island.
In the opening match of the 1976 Olympics, Cuba played Poland to a scoreless draw. That Poland team, which included Kaz Deyna and Grzegorz Lato, won the 1972 Olympic gold medal and went on to win the 1976 silver and finished third in the 1974 World Cup. Hernandez started against the Poles.
Cuba also has won five gold medals at the Central American Caribbean Games — in 1930, 1970, 1974, 1978 and 1986.
“It is the greatest honor for every Cuban athlete,” veteran goalkeeper Odelin Molina said. “It is the greatest thing to represent the Cuban flag.”
But even that modest success has not translated to success out of the region.
The Cubans play their international matches at Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana, a 28–000-seat capacity ground that was built in 1929, when it was called La Tropical Stadium. It is named after a man who died during the Cuban revolution during the fifties.
Estadio, also home to La Ciudad de la Habana, has seen better days. There is a large hole in the roof over part of the grandstand, where fans cannot sit when it rains. A day before the June 8 World Cup qualifier against Canada in 2012, workers were painted the cement entrance from the locker room area to the field red.
But controversy was brewing. Canada captain and center back Kevin McKenna complained about a 2 p.m. kickoff time as temperatures soared to close to 90 degrees with the barometer above 80 percent humidity.
“You come to these countries and that’s the way it is,” he said. “There is nobody here forcing any rules. For me it’s a joke. Even playing two o’clock in the afternoon, even Concacaf or FIFA has to step in there. It’s the health of the players as well to play at two o’clock. It’s crazy.”
Later, Hernandez noted that when his team goes north, the Cubans could face a cold reception from the weather on Oct. 12 (as it turned out, it didn’t).
“This subject of time is also tactical,” he said. “We know that Canada has scheduled the match in Toronto in October at 9 p.m. So we can take some advantage of playing at [2 p.m.].”
Canada earned a 1–0 victory under the Caribbean sun that Friday afternoon.
But playing at 2 p.m. during the week make some interesting gamesmanship and may be good for the short term to try to get a result, but won’t solve Cuba’s problems and challenges over the long haul.
It might need yet another revolution for the sport to really take hold on the island.
Until then, soccer-loving Cubans will just have to wait for their silent soccer revolution to gain some more ground and momentum.