U.S. game makes soccer king in Cuba

September 5, 2008

HAVANA -- Light on talent and with little soccer tradition, Cuba almost certainly won't make the 2010 World Cup. That means Saturday night's qualifier against the United States, with its political overtones, is the highlight of the Cubans' qualifying campaign.

The Americans, ranked 28th in the world and trying to earn a spot in its sixth straight World Cup, are making their first trip to the communist-run island since a 5-2 exhibition loss in 1947.

"Cuba-U.S. is always a classic in any sport," Cuba goalkeeper Odelin Molina said. "The fans will be excited to have a World Cup team here, but the fact that it's the United States makes it so much more exciting."

Since that match in Havana 61 years ago, the United States has gone 5-0-1 against the Cubans. But when the teams met in the first round of the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup, they were tied before Landon Donovan's 87th-minute goal sparked the United States to a 4-1 win at Seattle.

U.S. coach Bob Bradley has praised Cuba, saying its national team strikes a balance between the kind of athleticism common in Caribbean soccer and the finesse of Latin American style. But the Americans were somewhat limited in their ability to gather firsthand information on their opponents.

"We have been able accumulate DVDs," Bradley said. "Our pure ability to send somebody to Cuba for scouting is not that easy."

Cuba appeared overmatched in a 3-1 home loss to Trinidad and Tobago on Aug. 20, the start of the semifinals in the North and Central American and Caribbean region. That same night, the U.S. won 1-0 at Guatemala on Carlos Bocanegra's 69th-minute goal.

The T&T game failed to inspire the fan base of this baseball-crazy nation, drawing only about 1,500 spectators to decrepit Pedro Marrero Stadium, which is plagued by a crumbling roof and a bare-bones lighting system erected only weeks ago.

A team of workers with a crane was hastily retiling the roof Friday night, less than 24 hours before kickoff. Bradley said the grass was a little too long and the field very hard.

"It means that at times bounces are tricky and footing's tricky," he said.

Cuba's players insist Saturday night's contest will be different than the one against Trinidad, some even billing it as the equivalent of the World Cup itself.

"The stadium will be full," midfielder Jaime Colome said. "It's a game that's very important."

U.S. defender Danny Califf said "if they are thinking this is like a World Cup game just because we're here, that's really cool."

"We know that they are going to be fired up for the game and come out with a lot of energy," he said. "That's a given."

But Donovan, who scored four goals when the Americans topped Cuba 5-0 in the 2003 Gold Cup, said the United States is used to being the team every country in the region wants to beat.

"Anytime we come to qualifying games in Central America and the Caribbean, it becomes a very big game for these countries," he said. "We have to understand that. We have to deal with that, and we have to be that much better."

Cuba is promising a sellout. Pedro Marrero's official capacity is around 20,000, though far fewer fans are actually needed to fill it because officials don't open large sections of more-remote seating.

Unlike most national team soccer matches, Saturday's will be carried on state-controlled television and has been much ballyhooed by official news and sports programs. Cubans heading to the stadium will pay 1 peso, or about 4 American pennies, for admission. The government also will provide transportation and free admission to students and young communists to ensure the cheers for the home side are especially deafening.

Ticket prices are set extra-high for foreigners, but still go for only about $3.25. The U.S. embargo ensures there won't be many Americans in the stands, however, even though the U.S. Interests Section -- which Washington maintains in Havana instead of an embassy -- is organizing a small cheering section.

Bocanegra, the U.S. captain, said a dearth of friendly fans won't bother the team -- after all, fans rooting for the Americans sometimes are a minority at home games in the United States.

"We have a good group of players," Bocanegra said. "We're all professionals."

Molina predicted Cuban fans will remain respectful, unlike in some Latin American countries where offensive chants and even the throwing of objects on the field is common when the U.S. team visits.

"Cubans are very hospitable," he said. "They won't have any reason to be afraid."

Luis Hernandez, president of Cuba's Soccer Association, said the national team is approaching the game as it would any other international match.

"We are going in with our heads cool," he said, "but our hearts are racing."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press