J. Meric/AP

U S. Soccer Makes Historic Trip to Cuba

September 05, 2008 05:44 PM
by Denis Cummings
The U.S. men’s national team is playing in communist Cuba for the first time, but it is uncertain whether the match will be significant in either country.

U.S. to Plays Cuba Saturday Night

The game is part of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football’s qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The United States and Cuba are part of a four-team group, with the top two teams advancing to the final round of qualifying. The United States is required by CONCACAF and FIFA to play in Cuba, and Cuba must play a return leg game in the United States.

The U.S. men’s senior team has not played in Cuba since 1947, 12 years before Castro’s communist revolution. Since then, only an under-20 team has played in Cuba and—with the notable exception of a 1999 trip by the Baltimore Orioles—there have few prominent American teams traveling there.

“We are honored to represent the United States in this historic occasion to come here and play Cuba,” said U.S. head coach Bob Bradley. “It's exciting for all of our players. We have clearly a good idea of the importance of this match for both teams. I don't think there's extra pressure, but we do understand the fact that this game will bring extra attention.”

The media has played up the historical and political significance of the game, but it isn’t certain that it will be any more emotional or hard-fought than the average World Cup qualifier. It is one of the most anticipated soccer games in Cuban history and officials are expecting a larger-than-usual crowd at the 28,000-seat Estadio Pedro Marrero, but the excitement pales in comparison to soccer-mad countries in the Caribbean and Central America.

Cubans generally care little about soccer and have had little international success. They have reached the World Cup Finals just once—in 1938—and they’re not expected to reach the final round of CONCACAF qualifying. “There are few indications around this historic capital city that … a World Cup qualifying match will be played,” reports The Washington Post.

Players have downplayed the political significance of the game and there is little ill will between the teams. Reuters blogger Simon Evans is reminded of the U.S.’s 1998 World Cup game against Iran, where despite the constant, at times desperate, attempts of the media to stir things up … it was an extremely cordial affair with polite handshakes all-round.”

Background: Cubans in the U.S.

Though much is being made of the American trip to Cuba, it is the October 11 return leg in Washington, D.C., that will likely generate political controversy. Since 2005, 10 Cuban soccer players have defected while playing in the United States. The first, Maykel Galindo, defected during a 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup in Seattle and now plays in Major League Soccer. His success in the United States has encouraged others to follow his path and there is a good chance that some players will try to defect in October.

“Many people in Cuban soccer think it's been my fault that Cuban players have left the team. It's understandable. Many of these people watched me play when I was in Cuba and now they see me on TeleFutura or ESPN. Those people say to themselves, 'Look at Maykel, he's doing a good job in Major League Soccer,’” Galindo told Sports Illustrated. “But if I was in Cuba and I saw a fellow Cuban having that same success I would also want to taste that, to be on television and accomplish what he is doing.”

Historical Context: American sports in Cuba

The U.S. government has had an economic embargo on Cuba since 1962 and has forbidden Americans to travel there since 1963. Americans must receive special permission from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control to legally travel from the U.S. to Cuba, and visitors and discouraged from spending money in the country.

Many American baseball teams played in Cuba prior to Castro’s takeover, but only one professional sports team—the Baltimore Orioles in 1999—has played in Cuba since 1960. Several Little League teams have played in Cuba, and even their games have drawn criticism from Cuban-American politicians.

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