Soccer Joins the Cubamania in the US

By Ronal Quinones

The US and Cuban national soccer teams greet each other. Photo: Marcelino Vazquez/ACN
The US and Cuban national soccer teams greet each other. Photo: Marcelino Vazquez/ACN

HAVANA TIMES — From the moment I saw Jurgen Klinsmann arriving in a white and red 1957 Chevrolet, I knew that the friendly football match between the Cuban and US teams that took place on October 7th was a sign of something more.

It wasn’t only the fact that he would pull up to the Pedro Marrero stadium sitting in an almendron, like these museum relics are popularly known, but because he was accompanied by a young man with a camera in his hand, filming his arrival as if it were another music video of the kind that they shoot here in Havana wth the age-old formula of rum, tobacco and mulatas.

Even the US head coach said it before their historic meeting, firstly about the friendly nature of the game in the history of both nations, as previous games were all official matches, constituting qualifying matches or regional tournaments.

“We are very happy to be in Cuba. Sometimes what’s done on your home turf isn’t enough to develop players. We found an opportunity to come here and they were very curious to see this environment which is so different from their own. For us, it was important to get them outside of their comfort zones so they can experiment with new techniques, and it’s interesting to combine sports with the social aspect, this also helps the team coaches to find out more about our soccer players.”

Without visible signs of having suffered the onslaught of a merciless summer sun that punishes Havana still, the former German star seemed very happy to be visiting Cuba for the first time.

“Soccer gives us these kinds of opportunities, I’ve been able to travel to all of the world’s continents, as a player and as a coach, and it’s all been thanks to soccer. A lot of the boys went out to explore the city; they went to schools, to markets. We encourage them to talk to the locals, to exchange ideas and to take away a feeling of the place, beyond that of a simple soccer match. When you travel, you always learn something new, new cultures, a different people, and you have to accept each and every one of them as they are.”

During the friendly match between the Cuban and US national squads. Photo: Ismael Francisco/
During the friendly match between the Cuban and US national squads. Photo: Ismael Francisco/

The Cuban strategist, Raul Mederos, also seemed to be very happy with the friendly match, considering it to be a very good opportunity in all regards. In a strictly sports sense, he appeared to be satisfied with his boys’ performance, because he felt that they put on a good show for the hundreds of fans that gathered in the stadium, and the thousands of Cubans who watched the match on the TV.

The US took its best players to Cuba, except for the main goalkeepers and one player or another suffering from injuries, such as Clint Dempsey, who scored the only goal in the last match played between both teams on Havana soil, eight years ago.

Among the most emblematic figures was the current team captain, Michael Bradley, who also rated this visit positively:

“I was here in 2008, for a world cup qualifier. It’s an incredible experience to see your country, walk through its streets and greet people. We went out and around our hotel in Old Havana, divided up into small groups. Unfortunately, because we had the game coming up we had to rest at night, and when we finished the match we came straight back, which didn’t give us the time we wanted to be able to meet more people. For the vast majority, it’s their first time here and they’re seeing something incredible, something that a lot of US citizens can’t see.”

Meanwhile, forward player Jozy Altidore, a key player in the US attack, confessed that he had a lot of expectations before the trip: “We’re constantly being fed information about Cuba and a lot of us are curious to see if this was all true, from the old cars to the lines to get food. We haven’t been able to stay very long, but we’ve been able to see something and we leave with the good feelings of having been in another country so different to our own.”

Cuban players also had positive impressions about this match, and the team captain, Daniel Luis Saez, said the following:

“It was a great privilege for us to be able to play with the US because they have one of the best teams within our geographical region. These are opportunities that we have to make the most out of in order to grow and it’s a very good thing that there is now an opening between these two countries that will allow exchanges to become much more normal. We have always played better here, because we have always been beaten by a landslide there. We have a group of young men that have given their all, and I believe that we came out with our heads held high and we gave our fans what they were looking for.”

Jurgen Klinsmann in Havana. Photo: Ismael Francisco/
Jurgen Klinsmann in Havana. Photo: Ismael Francisco/

In the end, the match was a 2-0 in favor of the visiting team, even though Cuba played a very promising first half managing to end it with a tie 0-0.

During the second half, the Cubans made a couple mistakes that the rival forwards were able to capitalize well on, who are very hard-hitting when they have these kinds of opportunities on the whole.

For the US, the goal was to prepare themselves for their debut in the five team North, Central American and Caribbean football final, whose first rivals will be Mexico and Costa Rica next month in November.

By contrast, for Cuba it was one of the few opportunities that they would have to come up against an international level adversary, as they won’t play official matches in the next two years, because they were eliminated early on in the qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The match with the US team was another sign of the Cubamania taking place in the US right now. The island has received several unprecedented sports and celebrity visits to Cuba in recent months.