02/2/15

The Winds of Change: Is Cuban Football on the Brink of a Revolution

Cuba football

“Champions generate joy, honour, glory, and prestige for the country.”

(Fidel Castro)

At around 4:05pm, on July 13, 2013, a deadly silence fell over the Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The American’s enthusiasm had been sapped, momentarily lost within the sultry summer air. Jose Ciprian wheeled off in celebration, showcasing his best impression of Usain Bolt’s iconic victory pose. The seemly unthinkable was unfolding. For ten minutes Cuba led the USA 1-0 in their CONCACAF Gold Cup group game. For ten minutes, the underdogs were on course to record a famous victory against their historical and ideological arch-rivals. For ten minutes, perhaps we got a glimpse into what the future could hold for Cuban football.

Despite leading from the 36th to the 47th minute, a Cuban victory was never truly tangible. From the moment Landon Donavan equalised from the penalty spot, order was restored and the USA waltzed to a 4-1 victory. Jürgen Klinsmann’s men produced the reaction you would expect from a team of professionals playing a team of amateurs. For professionalism has been outlawed on the Communist island of Cuba since 1962, three years after Fidel Castro’s revolution ousted the U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Cuba went on to be knocked out in the Quarter-finals, equalling their best ever finish in the Gold Cup. They had qualified for the tournament courtesy of the country’s first Caribbean Cup triumph in 2012, claiming the scalps of Jamaica and eight time winners, Trinidad and Tobago. These victories were milestones for Cuban football but plenty more lie ahead. In a country where revolutionary reforms placed sport at the nexus of domestic and international policy, football has remained inconspicuous, even neglected. It has traditionally been baseball and boxing making waves on the shores of the Antilles. Yet with the political winds seemingly swirling in the direction of American shores, could football be ready for its own revolution?

Caribbean football’s pioneers

Jamaica’s 2-1 victory against Japan at the 1998 World Cup in France endeared the Caribbean’s to football partisans. They played with gusto, with a vibrancy that matched the tempo of their supporter’s drums. It was their first ever victory in their first ever appearance at a World Cup finals. However Jamaica was not the first Caribbean nation to appear on football’s grandest stage. That privilege was Cuba’s.

In May 1938, this pioneering Cuban team boarded a ship to compete in the third edition of the World Cup finals in France. Football was popular back then, a legacy left during Spain’s colonisation of the island. In fact, having remained a cornerstone of the Spanish Empire until 1898, the majority of the squad were all of Spanish ancestry.

Remarkably, however, Cuba hadn’t played a World Cup qualifier, reaching the finals by means of invitation after Mexico had withdrawn. None of their players had even touched foot on foreign soil before, let alone competed in a major international competition. Yet despite their inexperience; the Leones del Caribe (Lions of the Caribbean) defied all odds, beating a strong Romanian side 2-1 in a first round replay having originally drawn 3-3.

In the Quarter-finals, a humiliating 8-0 drubbing at the hands of Sweden quashed dreams of another upset. According to the team’s top-scorer, Juan Tunas, a waterlogged pitch didn’t help the Cuban cause. Speaking to FIFA.com in 2010, he said:

We were playing well and felt we were favourites going into the game. But then something happened that we hadn’t bargained for: it rained and the pitch was sodden. We weren’t used to conditions like that and we kept slipping over.”

Known during his playing days as ‘El Romperredes’ (The Netbuster), Tunas was the last surviving member of Cuba’s trailblazing Lions, dying in 2011 at the age of 98.  While his team’s legacy was not forgotten, it certainly wasn’t built upon. Cuba’s debut in 1938 remains their only appearance in a World Cup Finals. No progression just stagnation, lost by the wayside as baseball and boxing took centre stage.

Football not fit for Castro’s revolution.

Sport is seldom, if ever free from politics. This has proven particularly pertinent in Cuba. Upon overthrowing President Batista’s military junta in 1959, Fidel Castro immediately outlined his intention to make sport a pillar of the revolution.

“Politics is an instrument of sports. That is, sport is not a means, but rather an end, like every other human activity…”

The man nicknamed ‘Commandante’ (Commander) quickly set about restructuring Cuban sport, arguing that it had become a kleptocracy and an object of exploitation. To this end, professional sport was banned. The creation of a centrally controlled sports ministry known as INDER (Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educacion Fisica y Recreacion) helped Fidel implement schemes geared towards promoting mass participation and discovering athletic talent. Once discovered, these talents were nurtured, trained and indoctrinated at specialised sports schools known as EIDE (Escuelas de Iniciacion Deportiva Escolar).

The overarching aim behind these policies was twofold. Domestically sport helped promulgate a cohesive Marxist society. Internationally, it was an indirect but effective way to antagonise and compete with their U.S. neighbour, perceived as an overweening world power and a threat to the nascent Cuban revolution. But if sport was such a triumphant vehicle of the revolution, why was football a pariah in Fidel’s political machinations? Three considerations must be taken into account – amateurism, Fidel Castro and the U.S.

Historically the most popular sports in Cuba have been baseball and boxing. It’s unsurprising given the islands proximity to the U.S. For Fidel, they were the perfect fit. Both sports have a strong amateur tradition, with the Olympic and Pan American Games providing a global ‘shop window’ for Cuba’s sporting prowess. Baseball was one of Fidel’s favourite sports and boxing was an effective means through which to compete with the U.S., factors that cemented their place as hallmarks of the revolution.

Despite being favoured by Fidel’s foil – Argentinian Socialist icon Ernesto Che Guevara – football was not awarded the same prestige. It was inextricably linked to the world of professionalism. Professional players were even permitted to compete in the Olympic Games from 1984 onwards, further stymieing chances for Cuban football to make inroads. During the height of Fidel’s reforms, ‘soccer’ was yet to take off in the U.S., meaning it did not serve any ‘revolutionary’ purposes. As such, the game was not afforded the provision of other sports.

The problems Cuban Football faces today

Fast forward and the Cuban football system remains amateur in every sense of the word. The Campeonato Nacional (16 clubs split into four groups of four teams) is the highest level in the Cuban football pyramid. None of the players are paid, the facilities are squalid and the pitches shoddy. For many with aspirations of forging a career in football, it’s a glass ceiling.  This leaves talented young players bereft of a chance to hone their skills and playing abroad isn’t an option – that is unless they are willing to defect.

Many have, Eviel Corvodes, Maykel Chang, Odisnel Cooper, Maykel Galindo, Osvaldo Alonso and Yordany Álvarez are just a number of players who have chosen to pursue a professional football career in the United States. Speaking to USA Today, Álvarez, who played for Salt Lake City in Major League Soccer (MLS) before retiring in 2014, gave a candid insight into the realities Cuban footballers face:

Cuba has good soccer players but the conditions are bad – no cleats, bad coaches, bad food. All my friends in Cuba have retired. They don’t play anymore because there is no money.”

In line with Cuba’s egalitarian policies, players of the Cuban national team are not awarded any special treatment. They receive a derisory sum of $8-10 a month. In truth the amount is barely enough to get by and unsurprisingly many defect, favouring a stable career over the duties of their country. The defectors are considered traitors, unable to represent the national team to the detriment of Cuban football’s progression. But amid this doom and gloom, successes on the pitch suggest the dawn of a new era could lie just around the corner.

A new dawn for the Caribbean’s Lions

Upon winning the Caribbean Cup in 2012, Cuban head coach Walter Benitez said: “Our style of playing is kind of flowing, fast-moving football, where we create chances for our strikers and trust each other totally.” It’s a style of play that appears to be capturing the imagination of Cuba’s youth. “I like soccer better than baseball, it’s a strong sport, the movement, the energy,” one 16-year-old Cuban told the New York Times. Another youngster echoed this sentiment while partaking in his daily kick around after school “It’s our game, fun and fast.”

In terms of popularity, football has started to rival baseball as the favourite sport of many young Cubans. It shows.  In 2013 the national u-20 side qualified for the World Cup at that youth level for the first time in their history. The tournament itself was a learning curve as the Cubans finished bottom in their group and failed to register a point. However for a team comprised of amateurs it was a major coup and one which demonstrated the wealth of raw talent on the island. To borrow from Paula Pettavino and Geralyn Pye (academics in Cuban sport and history), Cuba’s footballers are ‘rough diamonds just waiting to be polished’

Times are changing on the island nicknamed the ‘Pearl of the Antilles.’ The austerity faced by Cuban society during the last two decades has seen gradual economic liberalisation. Raul Castro (brother of Fidel) has announced he will stand down as president in 2018, heralding the end of the Castro-era. Cuba and the U.S. are in the midst of landmark talks focused on restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. These improved relations could be the harbinger of a new era for Cuban football.

And why not? Fidel Castro’s regime has laid the foundations, creating a sporting infrastructure that has proved it can produce world-class athletes. The figures speak for themselves. Since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has won a total of 11 Pan-American golds in baseball and 67 Olympic medals in boxing. It isn’t inconceivable that with time, football could reach similar levels.

The normalisation of relations with the U.S. could certainly quicken the process. Could the rise in popularity of American soccer have a knock-on effect in Cuba? Could access to the professional leagues, particularly MLS, become more readily available which in turn could prevent Cuba’s footballing stars from defecting? Could we even see an MLS team based in Cuba one day? For now the latter remains implausible however according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, the prospect of future world-class Cuban footballers is very much feasible.

“There’s no reason why in a country of 11 million people that has had a reputation for producing world-class athletes, Cuba can’t be a producer of world-class soccer players.”

Cuba is undergoing a moment of historic transcendence but ameliorating decades of hostilities with the U.S. will be a lengthy process. Just as reforming a sporting identity will. Baseball is engrained into the Cuban psyche but as sportswriter Michel Contreras declared, there is also room for football.

For now, the Cuban national team will be looking to build upon their fourth place finish in the 2014 edition of the Caribbean Cup. This year’s CONCAF Gold Cup in Canada and the U.S. will be another invaluable experience and they will hope their performances can inspire yet more young Cubans to lace up their ‘cleats’ rather than slap on their pitching gloves.

”It is not just a simple game, it is a weapon of the revolution.”

(Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara on football)

@LH_Ramon25

This article first appeared on These Football Times

02/7/14

Random Rambles Part I: Bayern’s Trendsetters and Sochi Grievances

So Nicholas Anelka is awaiting the result of his appeal against the FA’s decision to ban him for his quenelle gesture, Brazilian protesters are still threatening to crash this summer’s world cup fiesta, Bayern Munich fans demonstrated a forward thinking approach to homosexuality in football and the Sochi Winter Olympics are upon us and the maelstrom surrounding the games only seems to be worsening. You can add stray dogs and journalists to the list of groups who feel a sense of injustice.

Over the next few days I will be posting my thoughts on the aforementioned issues starting with Bayern’s forward thinking fans and Sochi’s growing list of grievances.

“Football is everything, including gay”

As I have frequently mentioned football has an omnipotence to mobilise change and last Sunday’s game between Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt demonstrated a refreshing facet of this. During the match the supporters of Bayern Munich unveiled a banner that read “Fußball ist alles, auch schwul” (Football is everything, including gay). Football clubs often involve themselves in campaigns tackling social discrimination, whether it be racism, sexism or homosexuality however what was so refreshing about this incident was seeing the fans take the initiative.

Bayern Munich fans unveil banner reading "Football is everything including gay" (Photo from http://suedkurve-muenchen.org/wp-content/gallery/fc-bayern-eintracht-frankfurt-02-02-2014/30.jpg%5D)

Bayern Munich fans unveil banner reading “Football is everything including gay” (Photo from http://suedkurve-muenchen.org/wp-content/gallery/fc-bayern-eintracht-frankfurt-02-02-2014/30.jpg%5D)

At times maligned and frowned upon, some football supporters (especially the more stalwart and passionate elements) have come in for criticism regarding their behavior and attitudes towards race, gender and sexuality. This is often justified and on occasions discrimination has plagued the stands of football stadia. Yet given the power and sway some of these fan groups hold, if they can transmit forward thinking and positive ideals to a global audience then the social significance of this should not be underestimated.

The Bavarian club’s supporters message was simple and hopefully it takes hold across the world. Just like anything, your sexuality should not be an issue and recently the archaic dogmas surrounding homosexuality within football are being challenged. From Robbie Rogers being an openly gay player in the MLS, to Thomas Hitzlsperger coming out and becoming the highest profile name to talk about his sexuality within football, the Bayern banner constitutes another step forward. There is a long journey ahead before we can render the game so many of us hold dear as all-inclusive but recent events represent progress.

It is worth noting the Bayern supporters also organised an impressive choreography dedicated to their former president Kurt Landauer, a Jew who was persecuted during the Nazi regime. So hats off to the supporters of Bayern Munich for jettisoning the old and exhibiting a forward thinking approach. Lets hope others take heed.

The grievances pile up at the Sochi Olympics.

Just a line on the Sochi Winter Olympics, which are now officially under way. Vladimir Putin and the Russian government could do with taking a leaf out of the Bayern supporters books.

The Olympics is a celebration of ‘sporting civility’ which includes such principles as ‘democracy, internationalism, equal rights and civic education’. That the Winter Games are being held in Russia, a country which in 2013 signed a statute criminalising support for ‘non-traditional’ relationships’ is questionable to say the least. Although the Russian government have insisted the law doesn’t forbid homosexuality, but merely prevents dissemination of gay ‘propaganda’ among those under eighteen, the issue has become a hot bed of controversy.

LBGT supporters take to the streets to protests against the Sochi Olympics. (Photo from www.businessweek.com)

LBGT supporters take to the streets to protests against the Sochi Olympics. (Photo from www.businessweek.com)

Gay and liberal activists across the world have expressed their outrage at this obsolete law, which if breached can incur penalties from fines to jail sentences and for foreigners even deportation. More worryingly the president of the Russian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Sports Federation, Konstantin Yablotsiky, has claimed that the law has to an extent legalised neo-Fascist anti-gay groups to become more active, with violent attacks on LGBT protesters a common occurrence.

The astronomical cost of the games (the most expensive in history) has also led to widespread discontent among Sochi residents and the allegations of corruption and environmental damage aimed at those who constructed the Olympic village has further damaged the hosts reputation before the games have even begun. Furthermore there remains a major concern over security at the Olympics with the threat of terrorist attacks ever-present. Add this to the latest developments which has seen a mass culling of stray dogs and journalists having been left without suitable accommodation and it becomes hard to make one water tight case for why Sochi should be hosting an Olympic games.

The ignominious law regarding gay rights and the numerous blunders cannot be readily altered. But sport can act as a catalyst for change and this may be the one saving grace. Using the words of New Zealander Blake Skejellerup, a gay speed skater who came out after competing at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics:

“Sochi gives us an opportunity to highlight Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws and say: this is wrong. Don’t underestimate how powerful that could be.”

Unfortunately Skejellerup narrowly missed out on qualification for Sochi however he is right, if anything at all the 2014 Winter Olympics constitute a possibility for progress, not just in Russia, but across the globe.