It is enough to look at the streets and parks of Cuba during this period of the World Cup to realize the popularity of soccer. It’s much greater than it was 15 or 20 years ago thanks to television broadcasts of these international competitions and other important matches, among other reasons.
In addition, increasing relationships with foreigners from various soccer-loving countries as well as the discreet but continuous expansion of Internet access have contributed to the interest of Cubans in this sport.
Today, these same streets and parks of Cuba look similar to those of Brazil, Italy or Russia, as groups of children and teens kick balls around in street tournaments, which of course include the frequent shouts of “Gooooal”!
These informal games are supplemented with the fanaticism of Cuban fans who root for the teams of World Cup participant countries, and who are seen more often wearing the uniforms of their idols.
Temporarily, soccer has displaced baseball as the national sport.
Unfortunately though, Cuba’s teams are not that good in soccer. I believe that at one time in the early 20th century we succeeded in making it to the World Cup, but for the majority of people that’s ancient history. Despite the help of some friends from soccer nations, and even the recent presence of a German trainer, the goal of having a good team has still not been reached (though, to tell truth, I think our playing in the indoor soccer specialty is better than that on the outdoor playing field).
Cubans do, however, hold the number one position in a particular specialty of soccer: ball handling.
For example, I recently met a Cuban —Erik Hernandez— who has just broken his own record in ball handling from a seated position. He sat there in the luxurious Copacabana Hotel for I don’t know how many hours keeping the official ball of the 2010 World Cup in the air by kicking it.
Obviously —despite the presence of representatives of the FIFA world soccer federation, who officially certify the feats of such “masters” (that term comes from the journalist on national TV)— such exhibitions, rather than being “serious” contributions to the practice of soccer in Cuba, are for the sake of curious records worthy of the Guinness Record Book.
On TV, the “master” complained about the rigors of training and of his back and leg pain. I think that these are unavoidable effects of his rigorous mission.
“Masters” in Cuba specialize in moving the ball with their feet over long miles or in controlling one for hours with their head or legs from diverse body postures. They dress in showy Adidas uniforms and hold the status of what are known on the island as “high-performance athletes” (Cuba has no professional athletes, though these ball handlers receive special diets, access to high-level services and practice their athletic specialty on a quasi-professional basis).
Some commentators even refer to the “Cuban school of ball mastery.”
Meanwhile, I’m thinking that soccer is like the society in microcosm. Like soccer, what is valued is reaching the goal. It is equally valued that —like soccer (where the winner is decided by the number of goals scored in a game)— for the success of a social system, “mastery” per se is not determinant, even when interesting records are broken.