For U.S. Team, the Venue Is Mysterious, Not the Mission

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 6, 2008

HAVANA, Sept. 5 -- From their upscale hotel in the Vedado district, players for the U.S. national soccer team are able to admire vintage American cars rumbling along the Malecon, the famous boulevard that separates the sea from this intriguing and troubled city.

East along the curved roadway, past a beer garden, a sad playground and crumbling buildings, signs at Plaza Anti-Imperialista extolling the 1959 revolution confront the U.S. Special Interests Section, the closest thing to a diplomatic outpost.

In Havana Vieja, the old town where salsa music filters through the narrow streets, monuments honor historic figures and bars salute Hemingway. Behind the Revolution Museum, the boat that carried Fidel Castro from Mexico to Cuba to begin the overthrow of the Batista government is preserved in glass and flanked by a captured U.S. bomber and a Soviet tank.

If the players picked up the English version of Granma, the government newspaper, they would have read a front-page message from Castro: "We are lucky to have a revolution!"

The one-hour flight took the players from Miami to Havana. The journey took them back in time.

Representatives of both teams have been playing down the political significance of Saturday night's World Cup qualifying match at Pedro Marrero Stadium, the first visit by the full U.S. national team in 61 years, but it would be foolish to ignore the extraordinary backdrop.

"We do understand the fact that this game will bring extra attention," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said. "It's exciting for all of us to play in that kind of situation and representing ourselves, representing the United States in the right way."

A capacity crowd of 17,000 is expected at the 79-year-old stadium, once a baseball park that hosted American players before the revolution. Asked if Raúl Castro, who succeeded his ailing brother as president in February, will attend, an official said, "We are not informed" of such decisions.

The U.S. players will not spend much time here, having arrived Thursday evening and departing on their charter Sunday morning. But a few ventured out Friday, strolling through the markets of Havana Vieja to buy artwork and old photographs. (As part of the economic embargo, the U.S. Treasury Department allows Americans to bring back cultural and informational items only.)

They were also able to absorb an atmosphere unlike anything they've encountered during other eye-opening Latin American odysseys.

"It's always been a mysterious land for Americans," defender Danny Califf said. "I really didn't know what to expect. I had heard about the old cars and that's about it. I really felt like I stepped out of a time machine. It's just surreal with the old buildings and cars, just surreal."

Added forward Landon Donovan: "The people have been fantastic. I think we were a little unsure of what to expect, but everyone has been great. They have been friendly, and they seem excited about us being here."

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