Cuba: Where Goals are now More Powerful than Home Runs

Soccer vs. Baseball

(Photo: Kaloian Santos)

Some people believe soccer is a matter of life and death. I don’t agree. Soccer is more than that, so much more.  -Bill Shankly

By Harold Iglesias Manresa (Joven Cuba)

HAVANA TIMES – The ball rolls on the ground. It doesn’t matter whether it’s on the grounds or fields of Ciudad Deportiva, Saborit in Playa, the villages of Punta Brava, Zulueta or any other corner in Cuba. By contrast, the white ball with red stitching has fallen asleep, and goals have taken precedence over home runs in Cuba, for a long time now.

When you compare both sports on an international level, it’s worth recognizing that baseball doesn’t even compete with the most “universal” of sports, which has this title for a reason. For example, FIFA, the leading soccer agency, has 211 countries officially associated with it; while the World Baseball and Softball Confederation has 190 countries that practice one of these two sports.

Photo: Irene Perez

But let’s go to the field, where heels grind, grass is lifted, and the dance of dribbling and dodging and the sound of bat and ball take center stage. In this struggle, we’ve tried to explain the reasons that have led to the 10-headed snake called soccer to have swallowed a national identity phenomenon such as baseball, especially in terms of preference and practice among the younger generations, the under 40s.

The first round in an unfair battle

In my opinion, the first factor is linked to quality from the perspective of our selections’ performance. When I say quality, I’m not talking only about the level of the professionals playing these sports in Cuba, where baseball continues to be above soccer from the children’s categories. However, besides the national selection getting through to the semi-finals of the 5th World Baseball Classic, our nine-player teams haven’t been giving us significant wins in a while.

Let’s give some one-off examples: we only went to the 1938 FIFA World Cup, by invitation, although in the qualifiers for the 1978 and 2005 CONCACAF League, we performed well with other generational stars, like the Cuban team of eleven that almost beat Mexico in the 2014 Central American and Caribbean Games in Veracruz, already having worn the shirt in a FIFA U-20 World Cup.

Add to this the fact that soccer hasn’t escaped the phenomenon of migration. For generations, the best of our national team have decided to do try-outs at another level and break away from the Cuban Football Association.

Photo: Hola News

Broadcasts of both these sports on Tele Rebelde TV channel is another indicator of preference. In the early days of the soccer boom, there were shows such as Gol 360, Gol Latino, the main European leagues, as well as the Champions League and the UEFA Europa League, which put on games, documentaries and other high-quality materials.

The Little League, U-23 Baseball World Cup, the Cuban National Series and any other baseball tournament with Cuban teams participating were in an unfair battle. They had the same luck in professional leagues in the Caribbean or Asia, and Major League Baseball games weren’t broadcast.

Even though this barrier built on political stilts rather than sports-related ones were eventually overcome after the 3rd World Baseball Classic in 2013, when baseball was removed from the official program of the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, franchises that had players trained in Cuba were excluded for a good while.

With sports becoming more and more globalized and advances in information and communications technology, it was expected that all of the scaffolding around soccer would come crashing down on the island, with children idolizing Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mbappe, Benzema, Haaland and others, instead of Luis Robert Moiran, Yordan Alvarez, Randy Arrozarena, Jorge Soler, Yuliesky Gourriel, or even Shohei Ohtani or Mike Trout, as well as the appropriation of the biggest slice of the communications cake: social media and football merchandising, without overlooking the phenomenon of videogames and movies even.

Photo: Irene Perez

Within this context, if you were to ask children to choose between FIFA 2023 and the MLB 2023, the scales would undoubtedly lean towards the former.

If you add to this the fact that soccer, as a social phenomenon in many countries, has become a kind of religion that is capable of bringing everyday activities to a halt. The rift continues to grow despite there being moments when a baseball game – whether it’s in the play-offs in the National Baseball League or in an international arena – has had a similar effect on millions of Cubans.

It was the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico when the first matches were broadcast in Cuba. Ironically, it was the FIFA World Cup held in the US in 1994 that we had the privilege of enjoying completely.

Then, baseball was in full swing, with passion personified in Linares, Kindelan, Pacheco, German and Victor Mesa, Arrojo, “el Duque” Hernandez, Ajete, Osvaldo Fernandez and co. Add to this the run-ins with the Senadores de San Juan, or the Sultanes de Monterrey as displays of quality.

That was the golden age of Cuban baseball when, even if we weren’t competing against the best professionals from other top teams, we were respected on any field we walked on. However, this supremacy of Cuban baseball has been sleeping ever since the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2007, the last important tournament we ended as champions.

To finish off this round, let’s look at some more recent and renowned examples of both sports: the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the V World Baseball Classic. According to FIFA, the Qatar World Cup final between Argentina and France was watched by over 1.5 billion people worldwide, 35% more than the 2018 final in Russia; while, the final between Japan and the U.S. recorded 6.5 million TV viewers in the US alone during the combined broadcast between FS1 and Fox Sports. While this represented a 69% increase in viewers compared to the previous final, the difference in viewer numbers with soccer is huge.

Round two: The demon of precariety

There is another matter that also has an influence and is linked to infrastructure: it’s a lot easier to set up a soccer match than a baseball game. For soccer, you just need two teams of children, a ball and in the worst of cases, two fences, sticks or stones to outline goalposts.

In baseball, you not only need a bat and ball, but you also need gloves and another kind of uniform. Amid the severe economic crisis in Cuban sports today, baseball has also fallen into this black hole.

Our sports industry is incapable of producing the gear needed to satisfy the needs of baseball players or any other athlete in different categories; and also, scarce national production mostly uses imported raw materials.

Photo: AFP

If there were shortages of uniforms, bats, and balls, in the Elite League and the National Series, even with the brand Teammate, which is responsible for covering the needs of these tournaments, what can we expect for other tournaments that are less important?

The reality is that, as a country, we are going through one of our toughest periods, but a potential escape valve in the future could be leading economic actors becoming sponsors of provincial baseball teams at different levels.

Stadium management of provincial sports authorities could be decentralized and put in the hands of private management, thereby seeking to make baseball a real show and rescue the sense of belonging that has practically been lost.

Small clubs could also be created to pay taxes to talent academies, capable of taking care of all or most of the training of a baseball player as a child.

The Cuban Baseball Federation, as a management organization for baseball, hasn’t been developing strategic actions to try and rescue our national sport. Limitations aside, it has been ostracized like most institutions that pull threads in this country, regardless of the Little League being considered a kind of oasis within this indifference.

Even so, the ten-headed snake called soccer continues to win over fans in Cuba and is swallowing baseball as the country’s socio-cultural phenomenon. Only a halo of light remains from the flame that the V World Baseball Classic ignited and the performance of Team Asere among the Cuban population. Baseball hasn’t escaped society’s detachment or indifference which can be seen in the newer generations regarding elements of identity, which have been pushed by the globalization of soccer.

I would like to think that this reality could be reversed in a not-too-distant future, and that we’ll see children organizing baseball games on every corner of Cuba, instead of running after a white and black ball. But sometimes, I commit the sin of being a little too optimistic.

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One thought on “Cuba: Where Goals are now More Powerful than Home Runs

  • Irrespective of the sport, Cubans with talent will leave to play or perform in capitalist countries! Why stay in Cuba, where nothing changes?

    The only talent recognized in Cuba, is adherence to the dictatorship’s repressive instructions. El Partido rules !!

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