Cuba’s route to football glory: a six-month training camp in North Korea

Cuba’s route to football glory: a six-month training camp in North Korea

As featured on Guardian Sport

Pre-tournament training camps have always been a vital ingredient for success on the international stage. World Cup 2014 winners Germany trained in Italy before travelling to Brazil. 2010 winners Spain trained in Austria before heading to South Africa. Even the inaugural World Cup winners Uruguay spent the four weeks preceding the 1930 tournament in a training camp.

It was little surprise, then, when the Cuban national team embarked on a training camp ahead of the 1970 Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games. What was surprising was the choice of location: North Korea.

Despite a distance of 7,800 miles between Havana and Pyongyang, Cuba and North Korea were close. They had been allies ever since the 1961 Bay of Pigs crisis (a US attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government), having established embassies in each other’s capital cities in the crisis’ aftermath. Che Guevara even visited Pyongyang in the December of the previous year, one of his first diplomatic visits since securing power with Castro in 1959.

While Castro’s determination to beat the US at its own game would see football ultimately suffer at the expense of sports such as baseball and boxing, the sport actually received initial support from Cuba’s new leaders. Several EIDEs – Sporting Initiation Schools – were set up around the island in 1961 in order to identify and specially train emerging sporting talents, including footballers.

Despite investment in football’s infrastructure, Cuba habitually underperformed in the 1960s. A third place finish at the 1966 CAC Games was the sole achievement, but even that was overshadowed by the team’s poor performance in qualifying for England’s World Cup that same year. Cuba had finished bottom of a less than stellar group containing Jamaica and Netherlands Antilles, thus missing out on what would have been their second appearance at the World Cup finals after participating at France 1938.

Accordingly, in 1969 the suits of Cuban football followed the well-trodden path of any struggling national team. They appointed a foreign manager.

The man tasked with turning the investment in the up-and-coming youngsters emerging from the EIDEs into appearances on the podium was Kim Yong-Ha of North Korea, and his first move as national team manager was to embark on a tour of his homeland with his adopted team.

It was hardly a short adventure for the squad of 27, most of whom had never left Cuba before, never mind the tropical climate of the Caribbean. The tour lasted not a few days, a week or even a fortnight, but was six whole months of intense physical training and strict diet.

Perhaps inevitably, the tour didn’t get off to a great start; homesickness crept in and the alien culture affected the players. One of the stars of that Cuban team was forward Andrés Roldán, who later explained: “The limited knowledge we had of Korea, coupled with the inconvenience of not understanding the language and the draining long trip, meant that the unity of the group was affected.”

Even worse was that three players had to return home. The right back Rafael Rodríguez Arguelles returned to Cuba after falling ill, while striker Jorge Massó also had to return to undergo surgery after breaking a toe in his right foot. More serious was the departure of central defender and captain Gregorio ‘Goyo’ Dalmau, who returned home after suffering a nervous breakdown.

With the fulcrum of the team returning home for the most preoccupying of reasons, with players feeling homesick and with language barriers proving problematic, one could have been forgiven for thinking the trip was going to be a disaster. It was 19-year-old Roldán who took over the captain’s armband following Goyo’s return home and, despite his inexperience, he was able to steer the ship back on course.

That was thanks in large part to the coaching tandem of manager Kim Yong-Ha and his Cuban assistant Sergio Padrón Moreno. The latter provided the motivation for the group of players, having been in their position a decade previously when he was the player of the tournament at the 1957 CAC Games, earning him a far from common acknowledgement from the Cuban government as one of the sportspeople of the year. Having managed capital city club La Habana to Cuban National Championship success in 1965, Moreno also knew several of the players well and he was a key link between the playing squad and manager Kim.

The relationship between Moreno and Kim was surprisingly good, given Kim’s limited Spanish and Moreno’s non-existent Korean. The Cuban had only good things to say about the man he would succeed just a year later: “He was the best foreign coach to ever sit on the bench of the Cuban national team. Kim knew a lot about technique. He imposed a great tactical discipline and got the best out of every player. Those six months were very fruitful.”

The praise for the man unknown to any member of the Cuban contingent just months previously was echoed by captain Roldán: “Kim had a universal football vision. He liked his Latin football and quickly gained the confidence of the players.”

That confidence was enhanced as the Cuban team went from victory to victory on their tour of North Korea. The trend continued when the contingent set off for a spell in war-torn Vietnam upon leaving North Korea, in a way stepping out of the frying pan and into the fire. In Moreno’s own words: “We set off for a country in the midst of war with quite a large group. They welcomed us with great affection and we played matches in seven or eight cities in the north of the country.”

Highlighting the hostile atmosphere in which the Cubans were preparing for the CAC Games, on one occasion the players took a break after lunch in order to rest for the evening’s match with a local Vietnamese team. That was when the air sirens sounded; a fleet of American B-52 planes were approaching.

The whole squad and the residents of the village took refuge from their common enemy in the hastily built and cramped underground tunnels. It was not a short wait either, with the all-clear to emerge not given until several hours later. Fortunately, however, all safely emerged and all safely returned to Cuba.

It may have been unconventional preparation for a tournament held in Panama, but the hard work and sacrifices invested into the tour paid off the following summer when Cuba ended a 40-year wait between gold medals at Panama’s 1970 CAC Games. Despite a 2-1 defeat to Colombia in their opening match and falling 3-0 behind to the hosts in their second, the steely resilience welded during the Asian tour saw the Cubans come back in the second half to defeat Panama 4-3 before concluding the group stage with a 4-0 win over Nicaragua to progress.

Two wins out of three in the next and final round, also a group stage, saw Cuba crowned champions ahead of Netherlands Antilles, Colombia – later disqualified for the fielding of an ineligible player – and Venezuela. It was their first regional footballing title under the new Castro government.

Kim Yong-Ha was heralded as a hero in Cuba; he was the exotic master tactician who had surely now ushered in a new era of success in Cuban football. It was certainly true that more success was to follow and the 1970s became the most fruitful decade in the history of Cuban football. A bronze medal followed at the Pan American Games of 1971, after which Kim returned to North Korea, leaving Sergio Padrón Moreno to take over the reins and complete the project Kim had started.

Moreno did so with great success, winning the following two CAC Games in 1974 and 1978, as well as the honour of taking Cuba to the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Cuba’s first ever Olympic appearance on the football field. Despite bowing out in the first round, Moreno’s Cuba earned a memorable goalless draw with tournament favourites, defending Olympic champions and 1974 World Cup bronze medallists Poland. They could even have won the match had a Cuban goal not been wrongly, according to the Cubans, chalked off for offside.

The following Olympic Games brought even greater triumph as Cuba qualified for the quarter-finals of China’s 1980 event, one of Moreno’s last acts as manager before stepping back from the dugout and into the Cuban Football Association’s offices in 1981.

The legacy left behind by him and Kim Yong-Ha has never been emulated, although that is not for lack of trying. Another Korean tour followed in 1985 under new manager Roberto ‘Nene’ Hernández and was, like the 1969 tour, followed with a CAC Games gold medal the following year. The success was not as prolonged this time, however, and Cuban football has never returned to its peak of the 1970s having regressed to the realms of the also-ran.

Captain and star of the team Andrés Roldán explained at the height of that peak in 1976 that, “after winning in Panama and repeating the triumph in the Dominican Republic [CAC Games of 1974], we had become a daring and ambitious group, ready to go toe to toe with anyone, even the Poles who were among the elite of world football.”

In his manager’s eyes there was only one possible explanation for the success of the 1970s: the tour of North Korea and Vietnam.

“As well as helping us to win the Central American and Caribbean Games of 1970,” Moreno has since suggested, “it acted as a good starting point and strengthened the competitive training of the group of players who would become the protagonists of the subsequent good results.”

Spool forward to the present day and the lesson for current football associations is clear. For success at Russia 2018 and beyond, a six-month stint in Pyongyang is the key. The tickets are surely being booked at the FA’s offices as we speak.

By Euan McTear @emctear

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