Fidel Castro has resigned and his island republic is opening up more and more to the world – and that includes embracing football, formerly a failure in a sea of sporting success, writes Matt Norman

When Fidel Castro officially stepped down as president of Cuba on February 18, the debate over his legacy began instantly, with detractors and supporters in equal numbers queuing up to declare his half-century reign as one of either tyranny or triumph.

There is far less debate over the revolution in Cuban sport that Castro’s regime has overseen, the successes of this nation of just 11 million people plain to see in the Olympic medals tables, finishing as high as fourth and fifth at Moscow 1980 and Barcelona 1992 respectively. Yet Cuba has made no impact on football and remains one of the few Latin American countries never to qualify for a World Cup, the sole appearance at the finals, in 1938, coming as a result of all the team’s opponents withdrawing.

Finally, over the past decade, the tide seems to have slowly turned, with some tangible progress made by the national team of late. They reached the final round of the Concacaf Olympic Games qualifying tournament this year for only the third time and are now regulars in the regional Gold Cup finals. Hopes have consequently been raised of a first successful qualifying campaign for the World Cup, under the guidance of their new, ex-Bundesliga coach Reinhold Fanz. Yet Cuba’s prowess in so many other sports begs the question why it has taken until now for the game to get this far.

Given its inglorious track record, Cuban football has a surprisingly long history. The league started in 1912 and the national team began playing in 1924, on a par with developments in countries such as Mexico and Colombia. However, Cuba, under the close control and influence of the United States, became increasingly fixated with baseball, which rapidly became a national obsession.

After the revolution in 1959, Castro – himself a former baseball pitcher – declared increased participation and excellence in sport as a priority. INDER, the new governing body for sport, introduced a policy of strict specialisation. Cubans became world-beaters in baseball, boxing, volleyball, judo and athletics, INDER overseeing each sport to the highest standards before a new one was sanctioned for development. Football was all but ignored in the face of other sports considered more likely to reap international successes.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent loss of more than 80 per cent of Cuban trade changed everything on the island. Forced to embrace investment from capitalist countries, particularly in the field of tourism, Cuba opened up to the world for the first time in decades, but this time free of the cultural and political dominance of the United States.

As visitors from Latin America, Europe and beyond poured into the country, Cuba became increasingly self-conscious of its lowly status in the global game. The 1998 World Cup proved to be something of a turning point. The tournament, significantly, was broadcast on television in Cuba, perhaps partly for the benefit of visiting tourists, and received far more media attention than any previous World Cup. Inspired by Zidane, Ronaldo et al, youngsters started playing football where they had previously played baseball or basketball. The state was finally given the push it appeared to have been waiting for to develop the game at the elite level. Standards began to improve and, responding to this elevation in the status of the game, FIFA donated $400,000 (£200,000) in 2002, a significant figure by Cuban standards, to help establish a national football centre.

Progress was reflected in the world rankings in November 2006, when Cuba reached a new high of 46th place. Yet there is still a long way to go. Playing surfaces for many league games remain more akin to pub-team pitches than anything in the English professional game; most grounds, more accurately described as unenclosed fields for the majority of clubs, have no floodlights, forcing the league to persist with mid-afternoon kick-off times, far from ideal in a sub-tropical climate, while games are rarely televised and are poorly attended.

As with all Cuban sports, the game is also blighted by defections, the last two Gold Cups costing strikers Maykel Galindo and Lester Moré, and midfielder Osvaldo Alonso. Despite these set-backs the growth of the game seems unstoppable, a premise based more than anything on the fact that today in the parks of Havana there are almost as many kids kicking balls as there are swinging bats.

From WSC 254 April 2008

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