By Ronal Quiñones
HAVANA TIMES — Several sports had begun slowly taking steps towards joining the professional world, but Cuban soccer appeared reluctant to take advantage of the reform process launched by the government at the close of 2013.
The most professionalized of sports has very specific and strict rules when it comes to contracts, and this is something the legal experts at the Cuban Sports Institute – who are entirely ignorant on these issues – realized early on.
It took them more than two years to try and figure out how this peculiar world works and, despite requests from several soccer clubs, Cuban authorities wasted a fair amount of time. Ultimately, Cuba agreed to a couple of contracts, those of 6’ 22-year-old Maykel Reyes and 6’1’’ 22-year-old Abel Martinez, who joined the Mexican club Cruz Azul. There, they will begin playing at subsidiary teams and see if they can work themselves up to the main one.
Havana Times approached Cesar Varela, legal representative of Cruz Azul, who acknowledged they had been after these players for a long time and got ahead of their competitors, Santos Laguna, who were going to go down in history as the first professional soccer club to hire Cubans residing on the island. The Torreon-based team was the first to approach the Cuban Soccer Association (ACF) and even organized a friendly match against the national selection, but Cruz Azul was ultimately the one that took the cake.
“We’d been following them since the sub-20 World Cup held in Turkey in 2013,” Varela explained. “We saw much talent and potential in them. We’d been following them for three years, they did well in the pre-season. They only need a bit of play time; the altitude may have gotten to them also. I also saw them play in the match against the NY Cosmos, a bit against Santos and in selection matches. They were the ones that caught our attention especially, but we’re open to considering other contracts.”
“In general terms, Mexican soccer is more competitive than Cuban soccer, but I think that they will get the hang of it over the year. They’re starting out at our local team, but they can move up. Because of the number of foreigners we’ve hired, we couldn’t put the two on the same team. The big team can have as many as four foreigners and one naturalized Mexican, and, currently, Cruz Azul has hired two new players, so they’ll have to earn their positions.”
“We want to have a strong local team. There’s an agreement with the Cuban Sports Federation in case we wanted to consider a transfer, in dependence of the interests of the club, the player and the Federation. We hope they will be very happy in Mexico and can achieve everything they set out to do. They’re going to have the best salaries of the entire second division and will live in a house owned by Cruz Azul, where they will share a room.”
In this connection, Cuban Sports Federation official Luis Hernandez declared that “this is historical, and we are pleased they are playing on a team as prestigious as Cruz Azul, which has a long history of positive results. For us, it is important that these players are able to improve their tactical and competitive skills, because that can be crucial for Cuban soccer. We’re currently in development, working with all the players, and the professionalism of Cruz Azul assures us that they are going to be able to improve professionally.”
Talking with the contracted players
Of course, we couldn’t but seek the impressions of the main characters in this story.
Maikel says that “we do not feel under pressure, we feel satisfied, because this is something we’ve wanted to see for long. We’ll try to make the most of this opportunity, which should come about more often. If we do things right, it’ll be easier for others to follow and to demonstrate that Cubans can play at the international level. We’ll continue to grow as people and players, that’s going to be very good for us when we re-join the national selection, to see if we can make it into the elite teams of our region.”
“The training is similar, but it is better paced and we have better conditions there. The impression they gave me in the pre-season is that they’re very serious, they have a clear sense of what to do, and those are the details that sometimes make the difference. This is going to be an important experience for us. I’m still a forward, but I won’t be kept there. The coach’s idea is to have me be a corner, that fits my playing technique well, I’ve always liked playing from the wing position. I hope I can adapt to the team and the coach’s style well. As the first to go through this, we can later convey our experiences to our teammates, and others will likely follow suit.”
For Abel, “a contract like this, with a big team like Cruz Azul, is an important achievement. I would like to earn the Second Division title and step up Cuba’s skill level a notch, so that we can become a respected country in this sense. It’ll be important for my career, being able to play in a professional league is an interesting experience for us, who are the first Cuban residents to do so.”
“I’ll be a midfielder, which is what I’ve been since little. I had good results at the lower categories, but I didn’t play that much at the national tournament because of injuries. I didn’t play in the national selection in the sub-15 and sub-17 categories, but I did in the sub-20, and all the way up to the top selections, where I’ve only played two matches (against Santos and Panama). I’ll be on one of the leading teams of the Second Division, next to good players. There’ll be two other foreigners in the team, and they’re expecting a third. Tactically speaking, Mexican soccer is quick, with plenty of pressure. It’s different in terms of my position because the movements are different, there’s practically no coverage, everyone marks their own pace. You have to be careful not to lose the ball and not to play too much offside.
“You have to start at the bottom and try to get picked to be able to play a lot. Our goal, of course, is to make it to the main team and do this as best we can to show our talent and show the world that Cuba has good players. The altitude affected us, especially at the beginning, but one gradually adapts and gets the hang of it. The physical training is similar, but they work on your strength more, with plenty of gym hours.”
Both will have a regular schedule of 17 matches (18 teams). If they qualify that could extend to 21 matches. Maykel will do so with the Premier team and Abel with Hidalgo, both branches of Cruz Azul.