By Jose A. Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES — Rugby, in its different forms, has been played in Cuba for many years, although it still continues to suffer a kind of curse because it doesn’t receive the institutional support it should.
Traditional US football was what was most known in Cuba, the kind that was played on the island since the early 20th century, and up until the ‘50s, there were official tournaments where clubs like Varsity and Caribes made themselves famous.
These teams, mostly made up of university students, used to play regularly and they kept the interest of this sport alive, but in the past 40 years, this passion has been slowly dying out and it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that it began to be played again.
Officially-speaking, the first club founded after 1959 was the Indios Caribe, created in 1992, and then Los Giradillos (1997) and Jose Marti (1999) teams came along, with 15 players on each team. In 1993, the first international match of a Cuban team, against the Cayman Islands, took place and this kicked off a series of a countless number of traditional and international teams coming to the country.
It’s estimated that eight to ten teams, mainly clubs, come to Cuba every year to play the locals, and some have gone outside of Havana, to Pinar del Rio, Matanzas and Granma.
The sport has been encouraged nationwide as of 2002, both in the 15 and 7 player categories. The first category was the most frequent, as every year since 2004, Havana has been organizing an invite-only competition, but the other category has been approved as an Olympic sport, the roles have been reversed, and female rugby even began to be played in some provinces.
Rugby was also covered by the International School of Physical Education and Sports (EIEFD), where the so-called Perros de San Jose played, in reference to the place where this school is located, and where the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) is too.
Today, as well as in Havana, it’s played in Pinar del Rio, Villa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Las Tunas and Granma, just to mention the most advanced provinces.
Rugby sevens is played in two halves that last seven minutes each and there are seven players on each team, four strikers and three defense players, and today, it’s Granma province that is the most advanced. The difference between this and US football is that you don’t need helmets or shoulder pads and the ball always needs to be passed backwards, never forwards.
Cuba took part in an official Rugby sevens international tournament for the first time at the 3rd ALBA games in 2009, where it won a silver medal and caught the Cuban authorities’ atention somewhat.
However, the Cuban Federation of this sport’s official constitution took quite a while to come along (until 2015) and this sport is mainly played thanks to the passion of its players and support from countries like Canada, France, to mention a few.
Suffice it to say (yet) the majority of players play outside of their working timetable, they meet up in the afternoons and ask for special leave or holiday when they need to take part in an event.
It’s baffling that Cuban players were invited to the qualifiers of the Central American and Caribbean Games in Mayaguez in 2010, on an all-expenses paid trip and INDER didn’t authorize them to travel. Mexico came second at this tournament and was beaten by Cuba at an international competition held in Havana.
This absence banned them from also taking part in the 2011 Pan-American Games in Guadalajara and has put Cuba behind other countries in the region. It didn’t take part in the last Olympics cycle either, which marked the return of this sport to the Olympic Games.
Courses and seminars are held quite frequently on the island, especially for children and young people, in pursuit of encouraging rugby in primary schools as a part of the physical education they receive.
Among the main objectives of the growing Cuban movement is to develop it from inferior categories, by creating schools all over the country, encouraging female rugby, strengthening provincial teams and taking part in international events so as to become a part of the regional Confederation.
This sport, which is currently played in over 100 countries, was featured in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and was previously present at the Olympics in Paris in 1900, London in 1908, Antwerp in 1920 and Paris in 1924.
But if you go to the Sports City Complex in Havana, you can also find flag football players, a sport similar to traditional US football, but there’s no physical contact, you can only take the flag, a ribbon attached to the waist of each player.
“I believe that anything that can take a child out of a possibly bad environment in the neighborhood is valid. When I was 15 I was living in the Pilar-Atares neighborhood in Cerro and that isn’t the best place in the world, but I managed to get out of that thanks to this sport. I preferred to come here and to play flag football.
Unfortunately, its similarities with US football affects us because of political matters and we aren’t given any support. We wanted to hold a tournament going down the normal route, but we couldn’t so we did it using our own resources, we boiled water and took it with us, we bought snacks, etc… Sport doesn’t have borders and it shouldn’t ever be stopped,” a player of this sport, Osmel Gonzalez, says.
Clearly, without caring too much about technicalities, people like rugby, so what is going on with Cuban institutions then?