Isaac Risco (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES – The final score didn’t make a difference. Nor was the mood ruined by the rain and the unusually gray skies, which threatened to dampen the spirits of the unprecedented soccer match held in Havana. On Tuesday, New York’s Cosmos Club was showered only with the applause and affection of Cuba’s growing soccer aficionados, following a historical match against the island’s national selection.
“I am really excited about this. It’s the only way I can see the big stars,” Manuel Diaz, a 52-year-old man from Havana says. He felt a winner before the start of the match, where the Cosmos beat Cuba’s soccer selection by 4 to 1.
Diaz, who considers himself the most devoted fan of Brazil’s soccer team on the island, decorated a US flag to take to Havana’s Pedro Marrero stadium.
“President Obama, let me travel to the United States to see Steph Curry at the NBA playoff,” read the phrase addressed to the US president. “I love American sport,” it added.
“Seeing Raul Gonzalez play is a dream come true,” remarked Oniel Acosta, a 30-year-old soccer fan who attended the match to see the current Cosmos forward and Real Madrid legend in action.
At the field located at Havana’s west-laying stadium, numerous banners with Raul on them could be seen. There was also no shortage of jerseys and scarves bearing the logos of different soccer teams, particularly Real Madrid, Barcelona and Italy’s Milan.
“We came to show our team support and to cheer the stars on,” said 24-year-old Gilberto Ortega, whose heart was divided between the two rivals. “We want more soccer teams to come to our country,” he said.
At the stadium, spectators showed the teams their support with ditties and cheers and applauded when the Cuban and US national anthems were sung. The latter proved a rather unfamiliar melody in Havana, owing to the ideological enmity that has prevailed between the two countries for decades.
The public even cheered when forward Lucky Mksoana scored the first goal nine minutes into the match on a pass from Raul. Cuba’s one goal, scored at minute 50, to leave the balance in favor of the visiting team at 4 to 1, did, however, prompt the loudest ovation.
The match between Cosmos and Cuba’s selection was particularly symbolic owing to the historical diplomatic rapprochement announced by Washington and Havana in December of last year.
The NY Cosmos are the first professional US team to visit the island since the announcement was made, and the first to do so since the Baltimore Orioles played in Havana in 1999. The former Chicago Sting had been the last US soccer team to play in Cuba, back in 1978.
In this new phase of rapprochement between the two countries, soccer has gotten ahead of baseball. The Orioles are planning to return to Havana later this year, to make yet another symbolic contribution by sports to the current thaw.
The members of Cosmos arrived in Cuba this past Sunday, accompanied by their honorary president, the legendary Brazilian soccer player Pele, who contributed to the development of US soccer after being signed by the New York team in the 1970s.
The Brazilian legend met with a standing ovation when he greeted spectators from a back balcony at the Pedro Marrero stadium. “Here we are, holding a soccer match for peace between the United States and Cuba,” Pele said during statements for Cuban television.
The arrival of the team, a member of the North American Soccer League, left all Cuban aficionados eager to see more sporting events involving the northern neighbor.
“I love American sports and I want to see the American sports I like whenever I want, live,” Manuel Diaz also said, in keeping with the phrase he’d painted on the US flag.
“They should let us watch what we want to watch,” Diaz added, referring to the few international sporting events that aired on Cuban television.
Though Cuban TV channels are broadcasting more and more European (and especially Spanish) league matches, Diaz insist more US Major League games, where several Cubans play, should be televised.
“We want to see them,” affirmed the Havana fan, who, 16 years ago, attended the game with the Baltimore Orioles held in the capital.
“When that happened, I thought the ice was going to melt and we were going to be able to see more of that, but, just look at how many years have gone by,” Diaz complained.