CUBAN FOOTBALL IS SOMEWHAT OF A MYSTERY TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD. The league is amateur, in the literal sense, and the national team only contests one or two competitive ties each World Cup qualifying cycle before being knocked out.
While European nations haven’t even kicked off their bid to reach Russia in 2018, Cuba’s dreams were dashed as early as June 2015, against Patrick Kluivert’s Curaçao. That may have been an especially early exit for Los Leones del Caribe but they’ve rarely gone much further and haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1938 – when technically they were “offered” their place.
It has been this reclusive for some time, essentially since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. Before then some of the biggest clubs in South America, such as Vélez Sarsfield and Colo Colo, visited the island for exhibition matches, while the likes of Real Madrid and Espanyol had also rocked up once upon a time for a kickabout. That all changed under Castro’s communist rule when he set up the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation and banned professionalism.
Although football had been incredibly popular, particularly among expat families, amateur sports were promoted from the 1960s onwards, with boxing and baseball given particular emphasis as they would allow Cuba the chance to beat the eternal enemy from across the Straits of Florida at their own games. The Pan American Games and the Olympic Games were both excellent settings to literally flex Cuba’s sporting muscle in front of the world and these two sports featured prominently.
By the NSYNC and Spice Girls end of the 1990s, however, the increasing popularity of football in the rest of the world finally began to shift the attitude towards the world’s game back on the Caribbean island. Their debilitating policy of banning any player who defected to turn out for a professional club abroad from the all-amateur national team was still in place, but Cuban football’s governing body wanted to find some way to improve the team and to achieve the same kind of success that neighbouring Jamaica had enjoyed at the 1998 World Cup, where they even defeated Japan in Lyon.
Football had spread its reach far and wide by the end of that decade, even setting up camp in the USA for the summer of 1994, yet the Cuban national team remained an embarrassment. With the minnows of the game becoming less and less minnow-ish, Cuba was ranked as low as 159 in the world in the first FIFA world rankings in 1993. A brief purple patch lifted the team up to 68th in 1996 before the nation dipped back into three figure territory in 1998 with a 107th listing. Something had to be done to stem the embarrassment.
Bonner Sport-Club is a pathologically unsuccessful German football team, located in the fairly large ex-capital city of Bonn, near the Belgian border.
Over the course of its 105-year history, the club has played between the third and fourth tiers of German football, with a couple of glory years in the second tier and a couple of proportionally depressing years at the fifth level. They had gained, in that time, a reputation for sketchy finances and dodgy dealings, even becoming the first German professional club to lose their licence in 1977.
Read | Cuba’s route to football glory: a six-month training camp in North Korea
In late 1998, with Bonner in the German fourth tier Oberliga Nordrhein division, the club’s 52-year-old owner Hans-Robert Viol stumbled across a video of match between Cuba and Brazil, which that year’s world champions won 2-0. Viol, nevertheless, was impressed by the pluckiness of the islanders’ performance and, in if-you-don’t-ask-you-don’t-get fashion, he looked into the possibility of signing a couple of their best players. “We thought that perhaps we could bring one or two Cuban players to Germany,” the club’s coach Rainer Thomas explained at the time.
Yet the Cuban FA was against the idea of allowing some of its players to move away from the rest of the team, even to a non-pro club like Bonner. Viol’s reply was to tell the Cubans that if they really wanted to keep the whole unit together, then he would welcome them all. Amazingly, the Cuban FA – with Fidel Castro’s blessing – agreed.
The Cuban authorities’ only condition was that the team did not receive any pay, which was certainly convenient for the German institution. The players would be given a little bit of pocket money for daily expenses, while food and accommodation in a former young people’s home, located at the edge of a forest in the sleepy town of Rheinbach, was also arranged. As a means of alternative payment, Bonner shipped football equipment – such as balls, boots and kit – back to Cuba. It was reported that the Cuban FA only owned 11 footballs at the time, so this was clearly welcome.
“There is virtually no infrastructure,” Viol said of the island’s attitude to the sport. “There are also few qualified coaches and few training venues, sports equipment and operational organisation. Below the first league, there are only the provincial championships, which last three to four months. The rest of the year, players spend on something else.”
Given that the football association possessed just as many footballs as they had players in their starting line-up, it was hardly surprising to learn that their fax machine was a little faulty, so the transfer of the players didn’t receive the official go-ahead until January 1999.
Eventually, though, 15 footballers, an interpreter, a cook, a masseur and two coaches – one of whom was Cuba’s head coach William Bennett – touched down in western Germany to write a new chapter in the country’s footballing history. Besides the gifted equipment, the main reward for the Cubans was the advanced coaching they were expected to receive and the advanced facilities they were expected to receive it in. “The Cubans want their team to be in Europe in order to learn tactics,” Viol said. Or as Simon Kuper beautifully put it: “In Germany, the Cubans believe, their players can learn how to play badly for 120 minutes and then win on penalties.”
With the stated goal of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, Bonner agreed to help Cuba set up some training matches against other teams from the continent – against the senior teams of Luxemburg and Liechtenstein and against the under-21 teams of Holland, Belgium and Germany. The 15 Cubans would then train with the Bonner players and the best ones would make the squad for the 1999-00 season, while the rest would stay in Germany and play with the reserves.
What could possibly go wrong?
While it was unprecedented for a whole national squad to turn up at a German fourth division club, the deal was theoretically above board. The European Union’s restriction on signing more than three non-EU players did not apply to teams outside the top two divisions of German football and the Cuban FA, which represented the players’ respective local clubs, retained the players’ registration rights and was happy for the players to move to Europe in what was essentially a loan deal. For the second half of the 1998-99 season, the imports were technically on trial for the following campaign and did not, therefore, compete in any official league matches.
FIFA and the German FA both looked into the deal but could find no evidence of any wrongdoing and, as such, five Cubans made their Bonner debut in April of 1999 as part of a training camp. Two friendlies were played as part of that camp, with Bonner even securing a 2-0 win over neighbouring Tus Schmidt, while they drew the other game 1-1. “The directors at Bonner were satisfied with the play from the Cubans,” journalist Iván García reported after those friendly fixtures.
Yet the locals were not “satisfied” with what they considered a cheap stunt by Viol. German media nicknamed the club ‘FC Fidel’, while other teams expressed concerns about the situation. Bonner’s homegrown players were also, understandably, upset. “If you play in our reserve team, then in Cuba you’d probably be an international,” Bonner midfielder Norman Perschen complained to The Guardian.
Amidst the outcry and pressure from the German FA, it wasn’t long before Franz-Josef Antwerpes, the president of the district of Cologne, intervened. By denying the visas that had been promised, Antwerpes was able to kill the ambitious project dead in one fell swoop.
The efforts of the two parties did not completely go to waste, however. With the move to Germany dead, most of the team returned home, but not all of them. Some were able to remain in the land of poets and thinkers to earn a spot on Bonner’s team and a visa via conventional means, while others left before returning at the beginning of the 21st century.
Yombel Aguado Crusellas and Lester Menéndez, for example, were involved in the latter half of the 1999-00 campaign, with the former scoring a goal in a win over FC Köln’s B team, while defender Vladimir Alejo Cordovés stayed for three whole seasons and also once nabbed a goal against Borussia Mönchengladbach B.
That 1999-00 season was a disaster, however, with the club finishing 15th in the Oberliga Nordrhein and suffering a relegation to the fifth tier Verbandsliga Mittelrhein – even though they’d bounce straight back up.
Cuba stumbled out of their German experience into a failure of their own. Although Simon Kuper expected they might master the tricks of the spot-kick, they obviously hadn’t remained in the country long enough and subsequently failed in their 2002 World Cup qualification bid with a penalty shootout loss to Barbados in May of 2000.
That Cuban side actually exited World Cup qualifying one round earlier than the team pushing for France 1998 had gone out. So, even though a number of the players on the field that day had been involved in the 1999 German adventure, the team had gone backwards. Osmín Hernández, Ariel Álvarez, Lázaro Dalcourt and Mario Pedraza Abreu all played in that two-legged qualifier against Barbados and all had turned out at least once for Bonner, while Vladimir Alejo Cordovés was still playing for the German club at the time. Yet the Bonner experiment would eventually yield results, in a roundabout way, a decade later.
In early 2008, Viol repaid the Cuban FA’s loan of 15 players by organising the appointment of former Bonner, Hannover and Eintracht Frankfurt coach Reinhold Fanz. The good relationship between Bonner and the island nation’s footballing authorities had been maintained and when he learned that they needed a new manager, he spoke to his colleague about taking on the role. Fnaz agreed.
Read | The lingering shadow of the Stasi
As had been done for the players in 1999, all the Cuban FA had to provide for their new head coach was food and accommodation in Havana – and perhaps the odd Cuba Libre, a drink Fanz said he was a fan of. The agreement also stated that the coach could commute between Germany and Cuba, with the former coaching staff taking charge of day-to-day training back in Havana whenever the German was unavailable.
“It’s a very interesting job and I am very happy,” the 54-year-old told the German FA’s website at the time. “Our goal is to secure qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.” Although he conceded that the first two CONCACAF place would inevitably go to the USA and Mexico, he was optimistic that his side could secure the third. “We want to take the next place and to take a leading role in the Caribbean ahead of Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Guatemala.”
One of the first things that Fanz did was to organise two training camps in Germany in the summer of 2008, one in the south in May and another in the north in July. He even invited the whole squad over to his house in Ehlershausen for coffee during their stay.
The first training camp had obviously paid off as the team defeated Antigua and Barbuda 8-3 over two legs in the preliminary round in June. That qualified Los Leones for the group stages, but they were given an incredibly tough draw as they were placed in a group consisting of the USA, Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala. The latter had only just missed out on qualification in 2006, while the first two did make it to the finals in Germany.
As expected, the two 2006 qualifiers were ruthless. Even though Cuba turned in two of their best performances in years, their Caribbean neighbours beat them 3-1 in Havana in August, while the Americans scraped a 1-0 win in the Cuban capital in September.
“We were the better team against Trinidad and Tobago and a draw would have been a fair result against the USA in Havana,” Fanz said after his first taste of international football. “The problem is that we are not mature enough and lack international experience, something you could see best in the game against the USA. We need to be more professional, that’s the difference between us and the other three teams in our group. My players all play here in Cuba. They don’t get any experience abroad, none at all. This is our biggest problem.”
He was right. Ten years after the Cuban FA first identified the need to expose its players to foreign football and tactics, the limitations of its all-amateur policies were still hurting their chances to compete internationally.
Finally, though, things began to change in 2013 – long after Fanz had left his post in October 2008, once his Cuba team had been mathematically ruled out of a ticket to South Africa. As part of the island’s increasing westernisation, regulations were changed in 2016 to allow Cubans to sign professional sports contracts overseas as long as taxes were paid back to the Cuban government on any income.
This was a monumental rule change as players fleeing the island in search of a professional contract – something at least 30 footballers had done since the German adventure in Bonner – could now achieve their sporting goals in a legal manner. As such, 22-year-olds Maykel Reyes and Abel Martínez became the first Cubans to take advantage of that rule when they signed their historic professional contracts with Mexican top-flight club Cruz Azul in the 2016 winter transfer window.
Many more are expected to follow in their footsteps, making the most of the chance to play abroad. Whether or not any players will choose to party like it was 1999 by signing up with Bonner Sport-Club – currently in the German fourth tier – remains to be seen.
By Euan McTear. Follow @emctear