Raul (NY Cosmos) Surprised by the Passion for Soccer in Cuba

Raul Gonzalez of the NY Cosmos, Pele and  Yeniel Márquez, captain of the Cuban squad.
Raul Gonzalez (r) of the NY Cosmos, Pele (c) and Yeniel Márquez (l), captain of the Cuban squad.  Photo: Ricardo Lopez Hevia

HAVANA TIMES — Raul Gonzalez, one of the historical players of Real Madrid, was surprised today by the passion aroused by soccer in Cuba in recent years.

“For me it was a big surprise to see the amount of people that recognized me, stopped me, who wanted to take a picture,” Raul said during his first visit to the island.

The current New York Cosmos player arrived Sunday in Cuba with his team to play a match on Tuesday with the Cuban national team.

Among Cuban soccer enthusiasts there are “many fans of Real Madrid and the same goes for Barcelona,” said Raul in a press conference in which he appeared alongside the legendary Pele.

“It is a country that lives soccer with passion, especially the Spanish League, which is followed with great interest,” said Raul. “Hopefully, in a country like Cuba more children begin to play soccer.”

The sport has gained much popularity on the island in recent years, despite having little tradition. Cuba participated only once in a World Cup in 1938.

Soccer has become increasingly popular among young people, often gaining ground on baseball, Cuba’s national sport. Cuban state television regularly broadcasts matches from the top European leagues, particularly the Spanish.

“Undoubtedly soccer is deeply rooted in today’s Cuba,” said the island’s national soccer commissioner, Rene Perez, who does not believe, however, that soccer will compete with baseball.

“We want to remain what we’ve been in baseball, historically,” Perez said about the powerful tradition of the sport in Cuba.

“But of course we want to see soccer continue to rise,” said the commissioner, who also spoke of the widespread coverage the Cuban media gives soccer.

“The two (football and baseball) can continue to carry the name of Cuba to the top of the peak of the international sports movement,” said Perez.

The Cosmos, who traveled to Havana on Sunday with Pele as the honorary president of the club, play the Cuban national team on Tuesday, the first match played by a professional US soccer team in Cuba in 37 years.

The event has generated great expectations for its symbolic role in the middle of the historic rapprochement between Washington and Havana began last December.