By Ronal Quiñones
HAVANA TIMES — There is nothing Cuban authorities fear more today than seeing the island end up behind Mexico, Colombia or Venezuela at the Central American and Caribbean Games to be held in Veracruz from November 14 to 30 this year, as these – for reasons more political than sports-related – are considered the most important sporting competition of the year.
Mexico, Cuba’s chief rival, will make the most of its condition as host. Colombian and Venezuelan athletes have relied heavily on Cuban trainers to prepare themselves for the different Olympic disciplines and have enjoyed considerable financial support from their governments, such that they are in better shape than ever.
Today, we will focus on the team sports that have been faring increasingly worse in Cuba, to the point that none managed to qualify for the 2012 London Olympic Games.
As has long been the case, Cuba’s baseball authorities are the least informed on the planet. Coupled with the scant professionalism of the sport’s authorities, the Pan-American Baseball Confederation (COPABE), that is, we get the perfect breeding ground for improvisation.
The Cuban Baseball Federation still doesn’t have the official calendar for the tournament, where it is presumed, but isn’t known with any certainty, that, in addition to Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Panama and Mexico are to compete.
The only information that has been made available in advance – and this doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know – is that those who are playing or played in Japan under the auspices of the Cuban Sports Institute, Yuliesky Gourriel, Frederich Cepeda, Alfredo Despaigne and Hector Mendoza, players who are not taking part in the current Cuban baseball league season, will be eligible to participate.
The Cuban league will suspend play on November 3, and the shortlist of players will have a week to prepare themselves, under the guidance of the much-criticized Victor Mesa.
“Mexico should be the toughest rival. It is our understanding it is going to put together the team with professional players from its summer league,” said Antonio Castillo, a member of the Cuban Baseball Federation. Cuba, however, has no other option but to walk away with the gold.
Cuba’s prospects in male basketball aren’t very promising, though, following the selection of the teams, reaching the semi-finals seems feasible.
As for the female team, former player and member of the Local Basketball Federation Ruperto Herrera stated that Cuba was going for the gold, and that the results of the male team would have to be evaluated before commenting on that. At any rate, Cuba believes that it can walk away with a medal in the discipline, as the other teams will be short important members who will be preparing for the NBA finals.
This month, Cuba’s male basketball team will be on a competitive tour through China, where it will be pitted against several teams. This should afford the squad good training for the Central American tournament.
Authorities are also hesitant to make predictions for this, the most universal of sporting disciplines. The general secretary of Cuba’s federation, Luis Enrique Yero, didn’t want to commit to any prediction, while pointing out that Cuba’s team had a great performance in Mexico last year, qualifying for the World Cup in the under-20 category.
“There’ll be plenty of rivalry, because that is the standard age for players in all professional teams and major selections, which are now starting a new cycle in anticipation of the World Cup to be held in Russia in 2018. New players will likely also be making their debut,” he stated.
Yero acknowledged that international soccer clubs have expressed interest over several players on Cuba’s team, but that no contracts with any of them have yet been authorized by the Cuban authorities.
This discipline, which once had a golden age in Cuba, plummeted with the collapse of the socialist bloc, to the point that Cuba has not participated in any official competitions in over a year.
This makes commissioner Eduardo Medina skeptical about this year’s performance, even when the team’s history pressures him to win.
“These will be the most difficult games in our history, particularly because we haven’t had the chance to prepare well for them. Our main venue, the Baragua Swimming Pool Complex, hasn’t been in use for a year and we are training at the Ciudad Deportiva complex, which involves other problems. Sometimes, there is no transportation or it arrives late, we have to share the swimming pool with the synchronized swimming team, the pentathlon and triathlon. If you couple this with the fact our rivals have improved a lot, winning will be very difficult,” he explained.
That said, he pointed out that Cuba’s players have an enviable build and have drawn the attention of several professional clubs (though nothing has yet been approved in this connection). In this discipline, Cuba has no choice but to secure a gold medal for both male and female teams (for the male team against Mexico and Colombia, and the female team against Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela, according to Medina).
Predictions also differ for this discipline: the female team aims at a gold medal, while the male team anticipates merely making it to the finals.
Commissioner Carlos Lamar commented that the women will find their toughest rivals in Mexico, while the men will meet their match in competition against Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
“We haven’t even seen the ball we’ll be playing with (an America brand ball), though we’ve already ordered a few and they should arrive shortly. That said, the female team fared very well at the World Championship, and we aspire to win the gold,” he said.
According to Lamar, the main strengths of Cuba’s teams are strong on defense and pitching. The offensive is not as good and that could cost the teams dearly.
For the first time in decades, there are no expectations that Cuba’s volleyball teams will be going for the gold in Veracruz this year, as the poor performance and relative inexperience of the female team does not allow for such optimism.
“Our goal is to have the male team reach the finals. We feel we have good prospects of winning, despite the youth of the team. We hope to remain among the top three with the female team,” said Ariel Sainz, representative of the Cuban federation.
In his opinion, the Dominican Republic, which fared extraordinarily well at the World Championship, will be the most outstanding team in the discipline, and the other finalist should be Puerto Rico, which has defeated Cuba in the last two matches.
As for beach volleyball, Cuba hopes that both teams reach the finals. Here, much dedication will be needed to defeat Mexico’s teams, which have greater international experience and are acting as hosts this year.
To sum up, it is predicted that, between team and individual sports, Cuba will secure around 125 medals and be the top medal-winner in Veracruz this year – not bad for a country that will not be participating in 107 of the 449 disciplines.
This, however, is mere speculation. The playing fields will be the ultimate judges as to whether Cuba continues to be a force to be reckoned with in regional sports.