There are only a handful of places in the world now where it is still acceptable to smoke cigars inside a football grounds. While this practice might be seen as disgusting to some in Cuba it is part of the norm of society.
Although cigars are often a bit overstated in their importance on Cuban culture, it is part of the imagery that one thinks of first when describing the island nation. This culture was once again placed on centre stage last week when the Cuban national team hosted the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League.
At Havana’s Pedro Marerro Stadium there was certainly electricity in the air and almost a bit of nervousness in the crowd. While many were excited to see New York Cosmos striker and Spanish football legend Raul, there was also excitement in that such an event was taking place.
Pele was there (what, did anyone really think the biggest self-promoter in soccer would miss this match?) as was New York Knick forward Carmelo Anthony, who is reportedly interested in buying an NASL team. The game itself had a big-match feel to it and almost seemed immune from everything else going on in the world.
While major corporations will often hawk games between clubs in foreign locations as ‘championship matches’ the games are often glorified training matches. Players who have the slightest injury are given the day off and players whose numbers reached into the forties and fifties can be found on the pitch.
The Cosmos-Cuba match was not exactly the easiest on the eye, it ended up being a 6-1 rout in favour of New York, but it did serve a major purpose: it opened up the world to Cuban football.
There is a very good reason for why this match registered on the world football media radar: because of the timeliness of it. Since 1978 when the Chicago Sting played a series of matches against the Cuban national team no American club soccer team has played a match in Cuba.
While the U.S. Men’s National Team have played World Cup qualifiers in Cuba and the Baltimore Orioles baseball team did schedule a match against the Cuban national team in Havana in 1998 travel and economic relations have been limited.
The culprit for this distant relationship was the economic embargo placed on Cuba by the United States. A remnant of the Cold War the economic embargo severely restricted trade and travel between the two nations.
If buying a box of Cuban cigars was considered criminal behaviour then one could only imagine the red tape involved in scheduling a sporting match. But with last December’s détente between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuba President Raul Castro, there is greater mobility for trade and travel.
While the embargo is still not lifted the hope is that better relations between the United States and Cuba will improve Cuban football. To be fair, the country does have a respectable footballing history. Cuba did make the 1938 World Cup in Italy and actually earned a 2-1 victory over Romania in their second match. They also won the Caribbean Cup in 2012 and made the Quarterfinals of the 2014 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
But soccer in Cuba has always played third fiddle to baseball and boxing in terms of importance in their sporting culture. That coupled with the issue of defection (over twenty-one players have fled the country during international tournaments over the last sixteen years) has left the Cuban football in tatters.
Matches in the Campeonato Nacional, the top division in Cuban football, have sparse attendance numbers and the Cup final is not even televised.
The problem that Cuba faces is a probably that many developing countries seem to have: while Cubans themselves enjoy watching Real Madrid and Barcelona, they don’t particularly care for their own home product.
It also does not help that the Cuban Football Association does not recognise the work of some of its players who play abroad. Players like Seattle Sounders midfielder Oswaldo Alonso, who left Cuba during the 2007 Gold Cup, is not allowed to play for his country nor does the Cuban FA tout his accomplishments.
If Cuba is to truly build off of this match and the goodwill that has come from it they will need to build a stronger relationship with the North American football structure.
Countries like Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama have all benefited from having their players play not just in Major League Soccer and Liga MX but also in the NASL, the United Soccer League, and in the second division of Mexican soccer.
Recruiting players with Cuban heritage will also help. When supporters start to see their own players playing in quality leagues then they will become more interested in the product. That might sound like a bit of a cheap short-term solution but one has to remember that this country prides itself on its athletics.
Cuban sports fans can point to pretty much any Major League Baseball team and say that one of their countrymen plays on that squad and can list countless champions across multiple weight classes in boxing.
While much of this is still down the road at least for one night Cuba was given the chance to show that it was more than just a baseball nation and that they could move on from the past.