AT AROUND 4.05PM on July 13, 2013, a deadly silence fell over the Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The American’s enthusiasm had been sapped, momentarily lost within the sultry summer air. Jose Ciprian wheeled off in celebration, showcasing his best impression of Usain Bolt’s iconic victory pose. The seemly unthinkable was unfolding. For 10 minutes Cuba led the USA 1-0 in their CONCACAF Gold Cup group game. For ten minutes, the underdogs were on course to record a famous victory against their historical and ideological rivals. For ten minutes, perhaps we got a glimpse into what the future could hold for Cuban football.
Despite leading from the 36th to the 47th minute, a Cuban victory was never truly tangible. From the moment Landon Donovan equalised from the penalty spot, order was restored and the USA waltzed to a 4-1 victory. Jürgen Klinsmann’s men produced the reaction you would expect from a team of professionals playing a team of amateurs. For professionalism has been outlawed on the communist island of Cuba since 1962, three years after Fidel Castro’s revolution ousted the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Cuba went on to be knocked out in the quarter-finals, equalling their best ever finish in the Gold Cup. They had qualified for the tournament courtesy of the country’s first Caribbean Cup triumph in 2012, claiming the scalps of Jamaica and eight time winners, Trinidad and Tobago. These victories were milestones for Cuban football but plenty more lie ahead.
In a country where revolutionary reforms placed sport at the nexus of domestic and international policy, football has remained inconspicuous, even neglected. It has traditionally been baseball and boxing making waves on the shores of the Antilles. Yet with the political winds seemingly swirling in the direction of American shores, could football be ready for its own revolution?
JAMAICA’S 2-1 VICTORY AGAINST JAPAN AT THE 1998 WORLD CUP in France endeared the Caribbean’s to football partisans. They played with gusto, and a vibrancy that matched the tempo of their supporter’s drums. It was their first ever victory in their first ever appearance at a World Cup finals. However Jamaica was not the first Caribbean nation to appear on football’s grandest stage. That privilege was Cuba’s.
In May 1938, this pioneering Cuban team boarded a ship to compete in the third edition of the World Cup finals in France. Football was popular back then, a legacy left during Spain’s colonisation of the island. In fact, having remained a cornerstone of the Spanish Empire until 1898, the majority of the squad were of Spanish ancestry.
Remarkably, however, Cuba hadn’t played a World Cup qualifier, reaching the finals by means of invitation after Mexico had withdrawn. None of their players had even touched foot on foreign soil before, let alone competed in a major international competition. Yet despite their inexperience; the Leones del Caribe (Lions of the Caribbean) defied all odds, beating a strong Romanian side 2-1 in a first round replay having originally drawn 3-3. In the quarter-finals, a humiliating 8-0 drubbing at the hands of Sweden quashed dreams of another upset. According to the team’s top-scorer, Juan Tuñas, a waterlogged pitch didn’t help the Cuban cause. Speaking to FIFA.com in 2010, he said: “We were playing well and felt we were favourites going into the game. But then something happened that we hadn’t bargained for: it rained and the pitch was sodden. We weren’t used to conditions like that and we kept slipping over.”
Known during his playing days as El Romperredes (The Netbuster), Tunas was the last surviving member of Cuba’s trailblazing Lions, dying in 2011 at the age of 98. While his team’s legacy was not forgotten, it certainly wasn’t built upon. Cuba’s debut in 1938 remains their only appearance at a World Cup finals. No progression, just stagnation; lost by the wayside as baseball and boxing took centre stage.
SPORT IS SELDOM, IF EVER, FREE FROM POLITICS. This has proven particularly pertinent in Cuba. Upon overthrowing President Batista’s military junta in 1959, Fidel Castro immediately outlined his intention to make sport a pillar of the revolution.
“Politics is an instrument of sports. That is, sport is not a means, but rather an end, like every other human activity.”
The man nicknamed Commandante quickly set about restructuring Cuban sport, arguing that it had become a kleptocracy and an object of exploitation. To this end, professional sport was banned. The creation of a centrally controlled sports ministry known as INDER (Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educación Fisica y Recreación) helped Castro implement schemes geared towards promoting mass participation and discovering athletic talent. Once discovered, these talents were nurtured, trained and indoctrinated at specialised sports schools known as EIDE (Escuelas de Iniciación Deportiva Escolar).
The overarching aim behind these policies was twofold. Domestically, sport helped promulgate a cohesive marxist society. Internationally, it was an indirect but effective way to antagonise and compete with their US neighbour, perceived as an overweening world power and a threat to the nascent Cuban revolution. But if sport was such a triumphant vehicle of the revolution, why was football a pariah in Fidel’s political machinations? Three considerations must be taken into account – amateurism, Fidel Castro and the US.
Historically the most popular sports in Cuba have been baseball and boxing. It’s unsurprising given the islands proximity to the US. For Fidel, they were the perfect fit. Both sports have a strong amateur tradition, with the Olympic and Pan American Games providing a global shop window for Cuba’s sporting prowess. Baseball was one of Fidel’s favourite sports and boxing was an effective means through which to compete with the US, factors that cemented their place as hallmarks of the revolution.
Despite being favoured by Fidel’s foil – Argentine socialist icon, Ernesto “Che” Guevara – football was not awarded the same prestige. It was inextricably linked to the world of professionalism. Professional players were even permitted to compete in the Olympic Games from 1984 onwards, further stymieing chances for Cuban football to make inroads. During the height of Fidel’s reforms, the sport was yet to take off in the US, meaning it did not serve any revolutionary purposes. As such, the game was not afforded the provision of other sports.
FAST-FORWARD TO TODAY AND THE CUBAN FOOTBALL SYSTEM remains amateur in every sense of the word. The Campeonato Nacional (16 clubs split into four groups of four teams) is the highest level in the Cuban football pyramid. None of the players are paid, the facilities are squalid, and the pitches shoddy. For many with aspirations of forging a career in football, it’s a glass ceiling. This leaves talented young players bereft of a chance to hone their skills, and playing abroad isn’t an option – that is unless they are willing to defect.
Many have. Heviel Cordovés, Maikel Chang, Odisnel Cooper, Maykel Galindo, Osvaldo Alsono and Yordany Álvarez are just a number of players who have chosen to pursue a professional football career in the United States. Speaking to USA Today, Álvarez, who played for Salt Lake City in Major League Soccer before retiring in 2014, gave a candid insight into the realities Cuban footballers face:
“Cuba has good soccer players but the conditions are bad – no cleats, bad coaches, bad food. All my friends in Cuba have retired. They don’t play anymore because there is no money.”
In line with Cuba’s egalitarian policies, players of the Cuban national team are not awarded any special treatment. They receive a derisory sum of $8-10 a month. In truth the amount is barely enough to get by and unsurprisingly many defect, favouring a stable career over the duties of their country. The defectors are considered traitors, unable to represent the national team to the detriment of Cuban football’s progression. But amid this doom and gloom, success on the pitch suggests the dawn of a new era could lie just around the corner.
UPON WINNING THE CARIBBEAN CUP IN 2012, Cuban head coach Walter Benítez said: “Our style of playing is kind of flowing, fast-moving football, where we create chances for our strikers and trust each other totally.” It’s a style of play that appears to be capturing the imagination of Cuba’s youth. “I like soccer better than baseball, it’s a strong sport, the movement, the energy,” one 16-year-old Cuban told the New York Times. Another youngster echoed this sentiment while partaking in his daily kick around after school: “It’s our game, fun and fast.”
In terms of popularity, football has started to rival baseball as the favourite sport of many young Cubans. It shows. In 2013 the national under-20 side qualified for the World Cup at youth level for the first time in their history. The tournament itself was a learning curve as the Cubans finished bottom in their group and failed to register a point. However for a team comprised of amateurs it was a major coup and one which demonstrated the wealth of raw talent on the island. To borrow from Paula Pettavino and Geralyn Pye (academics in Cuban sport and history), Cuba’s footballers are “rough diamonds just waiting to be polished”.
Times are changing on the island nicknamed the Pearl of the Antilles. The austerity faced by Cuban society during the last two decades has seen gradual economic liberalisation.Raúl Castro (brother of Fidel) has announced he will stand down as president in 2018, heralding the end of the Castro-era. Cuba and the US are in the midst of landmark talks focused on restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. These improved relations could be the harbinger of a new era for Cuban football.
And why not? Fidel Castro’s regime has laid the foundations, creating a sporting infrastructure that has proved it can produce world-class athletes. The figures speak for themselves. Since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has won a total of 11 Pan-American golds in baseball and 67 Olympic medals in boxing. It isn’t inconceivable that with time, football could reach similar levels.
The normalisation of relations with the US could quicken the process. Could the rise in popularity of American soccer have a knock-on effect in Cuba? Could access to the professional leagues, particularly MLS, become more readily available which in turn could prevent Cuba’s footballing stars from defecting? Could we even see an MLS team based in Cuba one day? For now the latter remains implausible however according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, the prospect of future world-class Cuban footballers is very much feasible.
“There’s no reason why in a country of 11 million people that has had a reputation for producing world-class athletes, Cuba can’t be a producer of world-class soccer players.”
Cuba is undergoing a moment of historic transcendence but ameliorating decades of hostilities with the US will be a lengthy process. Just as reforming a sporting identity will. Baseball is engrained into the Cuban psyche but there is also room for football.
For now, the Cuban national team will be looking to build upon their fourth place finish in the 2014 edition of the Caribbean Cup. This year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup in Canada and the US will be another invaluable experience and they will hope their performances can inspire yet more young Cubans to lace up their cleats rather than slap on their pitching gloves.
“It is not just a simple game, it is a weapon of the revolution.” Ernesto “Che” Guevara on football
By Luca Hodges-Ramon. Follow @LH_Ramon25