The rain finally ended and the first players made their way onto the football pitch. The grass field is at least 50 percent dirt, with goals secured to the ground so that no one can steal them.
As the sun peeked through the rain-soaked Estadio Pedro Marrero, the University of Havana’s ground, Yasami Osorio and Lorazo Hechemendi kicked around their taped-together football ball. “Now, more young people like football,” said Osorio through a translator, “while the older people like baseball.” After walking 45 minutes from their home to the stadium, they played with some friends using two rocks as goals. Only one of the boys wore football boots.
Cuba’s national sport of choice has historically been baseball, not football. The island’s single World Cup appearance in 1938 pales in comparison to its 25 baseball World Cup wins, including its most recent in 2005. It fades even further when one establishes that it was only the third World Cup ever, only 16 teams participated, and that Argentina and Uruguay refused to play due to anger that it was being held in Europe two years in a row.
However, with European football more readily available on television and the decline of the domestic baseball league due to 56 defections to the United States in the past decade alone, football is on the rise. This concerted push is seen through FIFA donating a regulation-sized synthetic grass field to Cuba last year, and a nine-foot plastic statue of the official ball of the 2018 World Cup, which sits on the famous Malecón seaside in Old Havana.
Perhaps most significantly, in 2016, Luis Hernández Heres, a former Cuban international player, became the first to be elected to the elite FIFA Council, the Switzerland-based governing body that makes executives decisions for the worldwide, multibillion-dollar association.
Joshua Nadel, a Latin American and Caribbean history professor at North Carolina Central University and author of the 2014 book Fútbol! Why Football Matters in Latin America, spoke about football’s growing influence in Cuba. “Over the last five years FIFA has been putting in money to places where football is not the most dominant sport,” said Nadel. “Places like Cuba.”
He further explained that FIFA’s Financial Assist Program, or FAP, which since 2004 was allocating around $250,000 to federations in places that need help growing the sport, this year shifted its policy on giving out money. FIFA shut down FAB and instead launched a new project-based program that allows for a more transparent view of where the money goes.
Similar to their donation in Cuba, in May 2018 it was reported by Al-Massae, a Moroccan newspaper, that FIFA would donate USD$6m to three Moroccan football clubs. This is in light of only three of the 23 players to make Morocco’s World Cup squad playing domestically in the nation. FIFA also contributed to growing the sport in Somalia in 2015 by donating 860 footballs to the national federation.
The recent allocation that went to Cuba is because the country should be matching its dominance in other sports such as baseball, boxing and ballet, said Nadel. “I can see FIFA wanting Cuba as a jewel in the crown. This is a typical sporting power and they want to be able to say now they are good at football too.”
After multiple requests for an interview with FIFA or the Cuban Football Association, the former sent an email that they said could be attributed to a “FIFA spokesperson”. Their email gave insight as to why FIFA began investing in the Caribbean nation. The email states that the funds being donated to Cuba were to refurbish longstanding sports venues. The statement also explains that the artificial grass placed at the Estadio La Polar was not the only donation that Cuba received.
“From the construction of an artificial pitch in La Polar, Havana, and in the Antonio Maceo stadium in Santiago, to the renovation of all the installations of the Pedro Marrero stadium, including the natural pitch, the stands and the offices, the expansion of La Polar facilities with stands and dressing rooms amongst other renovations,” said a FIFA spokesperson, “FIFA is helping the AFC to improve the venues where football is played in the country.”
José Emilio, whose title is Professor of Fútbol at the University of Havana, but functions more as an athletic director, spends every day at the Estadio Pedro Marrero, overseeing playing of the sport in Cuba. Located just behind the University of Havana, the patchy field is framed by a large brick wall with Juegos Caribe – Caribbean Sports – written on one side and bleachers on the other.
The players on one team, in beat-up sneakers and matching t-shirts, faced off against players in shirts that matched just enough to be recognised as another team. Both sides cheered every time someone showed a trick or scored a goal. Emilio, stopwatch in one hand and whistle in the other, watched the game from the bottom of the stadium, about 10 feet from the field, in the doorway to the changing rooms. “Baseball is more popular because it is international, but everyone in Cuba plays football,” said Emilio
However, the infrastructure to support what is unfolding on the streets, in makeshift fields, and even on the university pitch, still isn’t playing out yet on a formal, national level. For example, Cuban players aren’t scouted as heavily as in most other South American, Caribbean and North and Central American countries.
A place like Costa Rica is a good example. The Costa Rican football league has only four teams compared to Cuba’s eight, and a population of roughly five million, less than half of Cuba’s. Yet Barcelona, this year’s LaLiga champions, have an international academy in Costa Rica. This academy was put in place for players under the age of 18.
“People are here every day to play,” says Emilio, “but very few have professional aspirations.” Also, since Cuban talent is not highly sought after, there is little organisation in the youth system. There are only two academies and very few youth teams. Compared to Cuba’s two, Jamaica has an academy for each of its 12 pro-level teams.
While football has not yet been able to dominate organised and professional sports like others in Cuba, it’s clear rise in street culture could be linked to television in Cuba beginning to show European football matches. Javier Elias Rodríguez, a taxi driver in Havana, spoke about how television changed his opinion of football: “They always showed the World Cup, but 15 years ago they started showing club games,” he said. “Since they started showing football, it has become my favourite sport.”
Rodríguez also states that older generations have been watching baseball for too long to transition to football, but those 15 years of televising football matches have allowed a younger generation to get into the more marketable, global sport.
Dressed in Barcelona gear, teenagers Yasami Osorio and Lozaro Hechemendi looked like a tableau of how this global sport has been able to capture the minds of the Cuban youth. They passed a ball around on a pavement next to the University of Havana field, while two of their friends who showed up late, changed and put on their shoes, dressed in Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
Hechemendi, 16, and Osorio, 17, have been playing football and baseball since they were young boys, but they both prefer football now. Kids are pushed in Cuba to play youth baseball more than football. In fact, there are no nationally organised leagues for football players, as opposed to baseball, which has its own Cuban little league, similar to that in the United States.
Osorio explained that football serves as a way for the new generation of youth in Cuba to express themselves and be different from their parents. It also allows children to participate for the fun of the game, rather than for the race to the top. “There is less pressure to play football than baseball,” said Osorio. “In baseball there is pressure to be a professional.”
“No European teams have come to scout but Sergio Ramos came last summer,” Hechemendi excitedly says. Ramos, one of the game’s most decorated players in history, made a splash when he visited the island. “It made me feel like Cuban football might one day be important,” Hechemendi says.
While baseball is still producing the highest level of sporting talent in the country, football is pushing to capture the heart of the next generation of Cubans. “If you look around at people walking,” says Rodríguez, as he leaned over to open the door of the taxi that was missing a handle, “you can see that everyone is wearing football gear. The people here love football.” Soon, it seems, that may even be translated into tangible results.
By José da Silva @josegdasi