Cuba, Soccer and Globalization

Osmel Almaguer

Un equipo de fútbol cubano. Foto:

Though I’m a fervent follower of most sports, soccer — which is one of the greatest and most profitable spectacles in the world today — doesn’t arouse great passion in me.

However, among my fellow citizens, it has been turning into an almost feverish addiction. This caught my attention because we’ve never been a country with a soccer tradition, and much less one with a very high standing at the international level.

The official line — or at least the one accepted by those institutions that deal with channeling and directing thought in our country — works to relate this curious situation to factors such as globalization and neoliberalism, accusing these of “influencing and manipulating minds to prefer and depend on the products of capitalism.”

These bodies associate soccer with evils such as the “growing commercialization of sports,” the “the accumulation of athletic ability in the major economic centers of the world,” and the “indiscriminate theft of talent from less developed countries.”

Alternately, they point to it as diminishing ideals like “patriotism,” “national identity” and others, which in my opinion have both positive and negative aspects that shouldn’t be overlooked.

As for talent theft — to address just one of the many issues in this debate — it’s true that the commercialization of sports results in the country losing athletes trained with the nation’s own resources. Adding insult to injury, this is especially exasperating if we consider that such an exodus usually occurs by athletes from historically plundered regions who are drawn to the same nations that committed the plundering.

On the other hand, I suspect that most of these immigrants reach their peak levels of athletic performance in countries like France, the USA and England, where they find the optimal conditions for training and improving their techniques.

In other cases, like that of the Kenyans, who immigrate in search of making a team, since their development in long-distance disciplines is such that there always remains underused talent, the most common reason is the better economic conditions.

Cuban soccer, however, has nothing to do with that. We don’t export or import players. We have neither the money nor the quality soccer for such things. For reasons I’ll try to make understandable, we are mere spectators of the whole universal show.

So why is a sport like soccer, almost absent from our sporting traditions and history, unseating our national sport of baseball?

Although it’s very difficult to understand, I’ll try to simplify the explanation while referring to a combination of several factors.

– Baseball has lost ground internationally, but people still need heroes. In the absence of war, it is sports that produce heroic feats and situations. If there are no naturally emerging heroes, they’re manufactured, and if there are no “homegrown” raw materials for fabricating them, such products are imported (which is what happened with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo). Heroes have been imported to replace defunct Cuban sluggers, who always came through in the crucial moments.

– Technological advances in transportation and telecommunications around the world make maintaining the Cuban ideological framework an almost impossible task. Information comes from wherever and is filtered by either side. Internet and satellite pirates — though they’ve been almost completely controlled — create a gap in a system designed to remain completely closed.

Such a gap, especially after the ‘90s, has forced the Cuban government to make strategic concessions that it otherwise would never have allowed. One is to quench the thirst for up-to-the-moment sports that people have for what’s happening in these large “centers of power,” a thirst mainly for soccer. The state prefers soccer to transmitting professional baseball as the latter would show the inferiority of Cuban baseball and encourage the desertion of athletes in a sport that, in Cuba, is pure politics.

– The external pressure is great, but internal pressure is also growing daily. At the same time that the Cuban people  have suffered several losses (the economic boom of the 80’s, high self-esteem encouraged by successes in areas such as health, culture and sports), they have also discovered everything they’ve been missing out on for over fifty years. People therefore feel cheated and robbed, and in relation to the world stage — in which soccer is just one more element — they feel more like spectators than actors.

– Another factor to consider is the sense of affiliation, since they got us used to, and we let ourselves grow accustomed, during this half century, to live in isolation beyond certain boundaries. Now, since the myth of all-powerful heroes and gods, without which “we wouldn’t have survived,” has fallen to the ground, people sense a void that they attempt to fill with soccer teams. At the same time, they associate these with a reality much more comprehensive and totalitarian: world reality.