Soccer Struggles to Gain a Foothold in Cuba, Where Baseball Is King
Friday, September 5, 2008
HAVANA, Sept. 4 -- "We like futbol," said Eduardo, a taxi driver working the old Parque Central district. "We are just not very good at it."
Cuba is a baseball country, and if it weren't for the famed national team and the ultra-competitive national league, boxing and perhaps volleyball would win the hearts of the island's 11.3 million citizens. Unlike most of Latin America, Cuba has never truly embraced soccer, and government neglect has left the program far behind Caribbean adversaries Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.
There are few indications around this historic capital city that on Saturday night, on the western edge of the metropolitan area, a World Cup qualifying match will be played between Cuba and the United States, the Americans' first senior national team visit in 61 years.
Tucked in the back of Thursday's Granma, an eight-page tabloid and the official Communist Party newspaper, the sports page comprised an international track and field roundup, a story about the Paralympics in China and five paragraphs about the soccer qualifier.
The window of a downtown sporting goods store displayed baseball jerseys and caps of the national team and the popular Havana-based ballclub Industriales, but no soccer. The only clear signs of the sport are children playing in dusty parks, and South American and European tourists displaying their allegiance.
For Saturday's match, fans have been "invited" by the government to attend for free. Others, an official said, will be able to buy tickets for two pesos ($2.20).
Cubans do follow soccer, particularly big European teams such as Real Madrid and Manchester United, and World Cup matches are televised live every four years. Enthusiasm for the local product, though, is low.
"The highest priority is given to baseball in terms of government resources," said Maykel Galindo, a forward for MLS's Chivas USA who was among a dozen soccer players to defect to the United States the past six years and no longer plays for the national team. "Generally they like to invest in sports where Cuba can compete at a high international level, such as the Olympics. Kids will always say that their favorite sports hero is a baseball player, since that is what they are most exposed to. Many of them are dedicated to the bat and the ball, so that's what the country develops most."
Cuba's soccer history is not completely bare. The national team was entered into the third World Cup, in 1938, and tied and defeated Romania before getting thumped by Sweden, 8-0, in the worst loss in program history. The Leones del Caribe, as the team is known, have qualified five of the past six times for the Gold Cup, a biennial regional championship, and advanced to the quarterfinals in 2003.
On the global stage, though, the Cubans usually play a bit part. In attempting to qualify for the 1982 World Cup, they reached the final round before finishing fifth among six teams. The following three cycles, respectively, they did not enter, did not qualify and withdrew early. Their proudest recent effort came in the 2006 process, when they earned a pair of second-round ties with heavily favored Costa Rica but were eliminated on the away-goal rule.
This year began with a troubling 4-3 road victory over tiny Antigua and Barbuda and a 4-0 win in the return leg, allowing Cuba to advance. In the first of six semifinal-round matches, the Cubans lost at home to Trinidad and Tobago, 3-1.
The U.S. team has not been here since July 1947 for a 5-2 exhibition victory. The teams played each other in two World Cup qualifiers in Mexico City two years later and have met four times in the Gold Cup at U.S. venues the past 10 years, the Americans winning all four by a combined score of 13-1.