As US whistle-blower Edward Snowden considers offers of asylum that are few and far between, a long time enemy of the United States appeared to open its arms; the Caribbean island country of Cuba was allegedly ready to supply all the cigars he can handle. When it comes to the world game of football, the Communist nation has more than it’s fair share of issues to contend with that are a direct result of it’s political standing.
Football is not even considered in the top three most popular or played sports; ironically languishing behind the American-favoured baseball and basketball along with athletics and volleyball. The Asociacion de Futbol de Cuba governs domestic matters in the country but the league is not professional. The eight teams compete in a short but punchy fourteen game campaign with the top four progressing to semi-finals then a two-legged Grand Final. Investment is virtually non-existent and night games in the cool temperature as opposed to searing daytime heat are a complete no-go due to the cost of operating floodlights. Football pitches and facilities resemble a farmer’s cattle field and do not encourage the most attractive of play.
Meanwhile the national team’s maiden and sole appearance at the World Cup came in 1938 where they reached the quarter finals but were pummelled 8-0 by Sweden. They did however qualify purely by default for the sixteen team tournament, as all other South American nations except Brazil and Cuba withdrew in protest at a non-South American venue. On paper at least, the thirties proved to be a golden decade for the Leones del Caribe (Lions of the Caribbean) as they comfortably beat Jamaica in their first ever game and destroyed Honduras soon after. One name in Cuban football that will outlive any other is Mario Inchausti, a key player in this first decade playing at club level for Spanish teams Real Zaragoza, Real Betis and giants Real Madrid.
At the turn of the century the government made a conscious and public effort to introduce football more prominently in children’s lives. With no youth clubs, schools and the National Sport Institution are responsible for guiding children’s sporting preferences.
In recent times they look no closer to appearing on the world stage anytime soon, losing all six of their World Cup 2014 qualifying games scoring only one goal. However their local and regional reputation gained a welcome boost in 2012. It may not be considered one of the highlights of the world football calendar but Cuba took the CFU Caribbean Cup for first time in their history, taking the scalps of Jamaica, Haiti and finally eight time winners Trinidad & Tobago in the final.
With its Communist rule as publicly strong as ever, Cuba is consistently losing any ambitious talent it may develop to defection and migration. As soon as they leave Cuban soil the lure of the United States has proved too strong; two of the 2002 Gold Cup squad remained in Los Angeles, no doubt last seen posing for photos on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. The 2005 and 2007 tournaments brought three more defections and an army of seven youngsters disappeared from the 2008 Olympic Squad in Florida.
Unfortunately two players missed what would surely be the biggest game of careers when they went missing before a 2008 World Cup Qualifier against USA in Washington and most recently the Gold Cup hoodoo returned as another Cuban joined the more than accommodating United States. As each player leaves they no longer exist in the eyes of the Football Association.
The talent pool that leaves Cuba is usually the strongest and they have even made it to Major League Soccer (MLS). Currently Osvaldo Alonso or the ‘Honey Badger’ as he affectionately known is a no-nonsense tough-tackling midfielder with the Seattle Sounders and two-times Most Valuable Player (MVP) for the team.
Infamously Alonso left a Walmart store with team-mates while competing at the 2007 Gold Cup and walked for a few miles before borrowing a stranger’s phone to call a friend in Florida. Few can argue with his decision considering he earned just $8 a month playing for his national team in Cuba. The success story does not stop there; the USA’s coach former German superstar Jurgen Klinsmann has publicly declared he wants Alonso in his national squad once The Cuban Football Association ‘release’ him officially and once he has achieved US Citizenship.
Yordany Álvarez, also a midfielder, of Real Salt Lake has mirrored his compatriot’s success since defection and Eviel Cordovés is one of the strongest players in the second tier of US football for Charleston Battery.
Currently, domestic based twenty-three year old Marcel Hernández is attracting a growing group of admirers but with the threat or suspicion that he will stay in the US, he was sensationally left out of their national squad for 2013 Gold Cup, with his coach citing injury problems. Alain Cervantes has also stayed on the motherland for the time being at his club FC Ciego de Ávila, a striker with an impressive international goal tally of thirty-two goals in sixty games.
At the time of writing, Cuba are taking part in the Gold Cup against Costa Rica, USA and Belize with a completely domestic-based squad. Their first game against Costa-Rica ended in a 3-0 defeat and they followed it up with a 4-2 defeat against the US last weekend. Team officials will no doubt be watching their squad closely for any signs that they may accidentally get lost while on tour.
Cuban football has an extremely unique set of circumstances and a consistent dilemma that will continue to hinder their development; they need to compete against the best teams across the American continent but playing in the most prestigious tournaments mean they risk losing their brightest and most talented. Perhaps the country wishes it had a US style spying program after all.