By Ronal Quinones (Photos: Juan Suarez)
HAVANA TIMES — The world’s biggest soccer teams have fan clubs in every corner of the Earth, but because of Cuba’s peculiarities, there are very few official fan clubs based in this corner of the Caribbean. “Official” fan clubs are those which have received the soccer team’s approval, as many unofficial ones have popped up all over the archipelago.
One of these official ones is that of Real Madrid, one of the most famous soccer teams in the world, recognized by the Fédération Internationale de Soccer Association (FIFA) as the best in the 20th century, thanks to its great number of Spanish and European titles.
Real Madrid fans in Havana have their base at the Hotel Nacional, but in order to watch games, they generally meet at another hotel or in a bar with cable TV, because national TV doesn’t always broadcast the matches live.
Right now, their meeting point is the Solidarity Room at the Habana Libre Hotel, located on the corner of 23rd and L Streets, a place which everyone in Havana can easily get to. We went there one soccer-filled afternoon and first had a conversation with Alvaro Kirkpatrick, the Spanish Consul in Havana, and president of the fan club. Kirkpatrick still remembers the visit a delegation of white soccer shirts made to the Cuban capital last November, led by one of the club’s most emblematic figures, the former striker Emilio “El Buitre” Butragueno, who is today responsible for the club’s Institutional Relations.
“I thought it was amazing, because soccer is taking more and more root here in Cuba,” he said as an introduction. “Here you find Real Madrid’s origins, because when it was created, back in 1902, there were four Cubans on the club, two of whom were members on the first board of directors. So, the fact that soccer is recovering its heyday which it had so many years ago is a source of great pride.
“I never thought that I would get to experience this in Havana, it was very difficult to think that, but the thing is that Cuban TV began to show more soccer after I arrived, around 2009, and that has helped the boom a lot. Spain’s victory in the 2010 World Cup also helped; because many soccer fans wanted to see the Spanish team win because of their historic ties. The buzz is really high on a club level too because Spanish teams have won the European Championship in recent years.”
Where does the supporters club fit into this movement?
“The fan club does what it can to contribute to this. We are a group of Real Madrid fans who come together to watch the team’s games. We don’t do much else as a soccer supporters club, but we have coincided with this moment and it’s of great joy to us. The supporters club has existed since July 1st 2010, when we received a letter from the Managing Director of Real Madrid’s fan clubs, where he stated that he officially recognized us as a fan club. We are the first and only official supporters club of Real Madrid here.
“We would like there to be more, but we take great pride in being the pioneers. After that, I returned back to Spain for two years and then I came back to Cuba. I will finish my duties as Consul next summer or maybe the one after, although I will try to stay in Cuba for another year. My connection to Cuba has always been very close, I have a great-grandfather who was born in Old Havana, although he returned to Madrid when he was a young boy, but I have always felt a very close connection to this land.”
If you do go back to Spain, how would the fan club be managed?
“The first time I left for two years, the members wanted to keep me as the manager even though I was in Spain, doing what I could, and they named a member of the board as the Acting General Officer. When I physically leave, I won’t cut ties with the fan club, but we do have a board of directors which could take over my role perfectly well. We have our permanent base at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. In the cafe, where they have the movie history area, we have the Real Madrid corner with photos, shirts, balls signed by players, etc., but we don’t always watch matches there, we are mobile, so to speak. For example, this year, we watch games at the Habana Libre Hotel, where we invite members by SMS or via our Facebook page, which already has over 10,000 followers. We are now in the Solidarity Room and normally 100 of us get together.”
We could confirm this for ourselves, as well as the enthusiasm of those wearing Spain shirts.
Alejandro is one of these fans, who always wears the soccer team’s shirt, in his case no. 7, the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo’s number. “I have always followed Madrid, but I believe that the moment I most enjoyed was when they won the Champions League in 2014, against Atletico de Madrid. It’d been 12 years since the last time we won this title and we had got to the semis more than once before. Plus, it was a really interesting and dramatic game; it came down to extra time. Last year, they had to go to penalties, but because we had already won in 2014, our desire to win wasn’t so pressing.
“Sometimes some of us stay on to watch the Barcelona game,” says Hector, “who are our lifelong rivals. Of course, the most special time is when they play in the Champions League because it’s the title we want the most, the one which has put Madrid in history books.”
“The only thing we’re afraid of,” explains Duber, “is that one day some Cuban will go to play for Real Madrid and then they probably won’t put the games on Cuban TV anymore*. I know that this is highly unlikely and that there is always the chance to watch it at a hotel, but the vast majority of people watch these games in the comfort of their own homes, especially in the country’s interior, where we know there are hundreds of thousands of Real Madrid fans.”
If you are a Real Madrid fan or are just curious, now you know, you can find Cuba’s most ardent fans at the Habana Libre Hotel, every time the Spanish team plays.
*Cuban athletes of any sport who contract themselves with a foreign team are considered traitors by the Castro government and Cuban TV avoids games where they are playing. This is one of the big reasons Cuban TV favors soccer over the national sport, baseball, for broadcasts of foreign league play.