Cuba: Is Soccer Replacing Baseball?

Fernando Ravsberg*

Could it be that baseball is being replaced by soccer in popularity among young Cubans? Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES, April 28 — Baseball in Cuba seems doomed to fade into the background behind the overwhelming advance of the world’s number one sport: soccer, which is capturing the hearts of the island’s youth. To confirm this, all one has to do is go out on a Sunday afternoon to any neighborhood or small town.

They lack the material and infrastructural resources needed for baseball, but for soccer all they need is a ball to get together to play on the few fields that exist or in any street, park, vacant lot or even a pasture.

Yet baseball is still officially considered the “national sport.” Among other reasons, this is because its supporters include the elderly who sit in the seats of decision making at the different levels of power.

Tremendous growth

Coach Isaiah Agramonte asserted that in recent years, the growing interest in soccer has been “huge.” Photo: Raquel Perez

Isaiah Agramonte, a former soccer player who graduated from the School of Sports and is now a children’s coach, explained that in recent years “the growth of soccer in Cuba has been huge, the country had never experienced anything like this.”

We found 16-year-old Arnold Bueno playing with a group of friends. He assured us that among guys his age, “There are more people who like soccer than baseball, even though not all municipalities have soccer fields.”

Even with the scant official encouragement, as evidenced by the few playing fields that exist and the low budget for the game, soccer has arrived on the island. The names of Messi and Ronaldo are the talk of the youth, who can often be seen wearing shirts of Real Madrid or Barcelona.

The last World Cup, in South Africa, had so much interest that cinemas were set up to screen the broadcasts live, which brought out thousands of young people in overflowing crowds. The spectators often wrapped themselves in the flags of their teams and painted their faces with their colors.

Soccer establishing itself

Cuba is in a moment of generational change, a situation that calls into question some of the “most sacred cultural traditions.” Sports doesn’t escape this relentless evolution, it too is influenced by globalization and the flow of information.

The will of the people has been exerting itself. First this was with the matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid, where hundreds of kids gathered to watch the games videotaped by some foreigner who had access to Spanish TV.

Seeing the economic potential, some bars and hotels then set up television satellite dishes to transmit the best matches of the European soccer leagues, while of course requiring customers to consume the minimum.

Cuban TV finally bowed to the people’s pressure and began broadcasting the biggest matches of the European soccer – though still giving greater exposure to baseball, so that it would remain the absolute king.

Sports and politics

Baseball has its advocates in a generation that continues to occupy the top positions in the government, the Communist Party and in the media. They are the ones who decide how much air time is allocated to the different sports.

During the World Cup in South Africa, large theaters were set up to screen live matches and became filled with youth. Photo: Raquel Perez

The critics of soccer say that Cuba will never be a powerhouse in the sport. They argue that there’s an error being made in the nation’s information policy by giving access to the best soccer in the world while allowing only Cuban League baseball to be broadcast.

The problem is that the alternative would be to broadcast major league baseball from the US, which is blacked out because it belongs to the “enemy” – that opponent that “steals” athletes from Cuba and includes many Cuban “deserters.”

The degree of repudiation by the authorities is such that a documentary filmed in Cuba about the “Industriales” baseball team was banned on the island for five years because it had interviews with some Cuban athletes who now play in the majors.

(*) An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by Cartas Desde Cuba.


6 thoughts on “Cuba: Is Soccer Replacing Baseball?

  • Um, no. Your anecdote aside, soccer wasn’t that big in the ’70’s and everyone wasn’t predicting the demise of all other team sports. Also, MLS now has more spectators than all but the NFL and MLB in the States, and the league continues to expand and gain in profitability. The rise of football in the States is slow but steady, particularly as the Hispanic population rises, but also in cities like Portland and Seattle. Still, nobody is claiming the death of the NFL, NBA, or MLB in a decade. That’s just silly. Generational changes aren’t that fast.

  • That’s a ridiculous bar to clear. The sport can’t be popular until a small island nation already has players of high enough quality to be world champions?

    By your standards football wouldn’t be popular anywhere outside of Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and a few Western European nations. Somehow the rest of the world managed to fall in love with football without already having a world champion team…

  • The world is changing and old baseball fans are scared. Don’t worry peter it won’t happen in your life time but it is happening.
    Cuba can spend trillions on new stadiums with fancy malls, restaurants, clubs and swimming pools to get people out to games just like they do in american cities. However that only gets people to go to games they still won’t watch or play. Why are so many old baseball fans in denial?

    The fact is you can be a socialist and bail out a failing product or you can embrace the better product. Even if you bail out the failing product, the better product will continue to gain market share. Exp; american cars vs cars from japan, baseball vs soccer.

  • One further note here. Soccer will replace baseball in Cuba only when Cubans can wildly celebrate Cuba winning the FIFA world cup instead of cheering every four years for either Argentina or the Brazilians.

  • In the 1970s kids were playing soccer (unorganized groups and especially organized youth and school teams) on every empty lot in the USA, and especially everywhere east of the Mississippi River. At that time the perceived wisdom was that baseball (as well as basketball and football) were dead in the USA and that within a decade the number one sport in North America would be soccer. But it simply never happened. Today few kids play baseball on the street corners or in empty lots anywhere in the USA. But millions watch baseball the other two major sports on television. Soccer has no spectator interest except at World Cup time or if the USA women are winning in the Olympics. It takes more than kids playing in the streets to convert a nation to soccer spectators.

  • Two years ago I was at one end of the Malecon in Baracoa and a TV crew were going to cover a school baseball game taking place in front of where we were standing. The commentator came over to talk to me and I told him that I thought that football was squeezing baseball out. He did not agree.
    We rode of down the Malecon and encountered 3 groups playing, guess what? YES Futbal is winning all over Cuba.

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