Behind the Caribbean Curtain - Part One

I feel Cuban. My heart, my body and my blood, l would give for the Cuban flag, for Cuba.
— Diego Maradona

By Jordan Florit

"El Cuna del Futbol" reads the inscription on Zulueta’s central park statue – “The Cradle of Football.”

The Monument to the Ball symbolises the importance of the Beautiful Game in Zulueta, home of the most successful club in Cuba’s history: FC Villa Clara.

Known as the cradle of Cuban football since it became one of the first villages to have the game imported to it by Spanish traders in the early 20th century; Zulueta's current club only came into existence in 1978. Despite this, the Naranjas y Blancas have lifted the Campeonato Nacional de Futbol fourteen times, including six titles since the turn of the century.

They play most of their home games at the 15,000 capacity Estadio Camilo Cienfuegos and, like many public places, it takes its name from a Cuban revolutionary. But Zulueta’s footballing history long predates the Cuban Revolution.

Cuban football has its own revolutionaries.

Dagoberto Sosa Ariosa was, according to Cuban football historian Maximo ‘Chacito’ Silveiro, the missionary of football in Cuba. Once he had established numerous football clubs in Zulueta, Sosa took the game around the country. He set up the first football academy on the island in Manati and went on to win the Cuban Championships with the first team to do so outside of the capital: Los Diablos Rojos - The Red Devils.

As football in the region started to falter without Sosa, another local, named Eduardo Becerra, filled the void and formed a new team called Los Millionarios. They won the provincial title repeatedly in the 1950s, leading to teams from all over the island travelling to Zulueta just for a chance to play them. After the revolution, they continued under the name FC Zulueta and following continued successes at provincial level, they began entering national competitions as Las Villas and finally as Villa Clara. To this day the club remains the most successful in Cuba's history.

With the claim as founding fathers of Cuban football firmly in the grasp of Los Zuluetenos, their statue was visible testament to this. For that, they have Rodelio Amaya to thank. The labourer from the nearby Chiquitico Fabregat factory sculpted it as a monument to the village's successes and passion, and it has in turn become Zulueta's greatest pride alongside the rickety stadium.

A fierce defence of community is a staple feature of the Cuban character and, as such, FC Villa Clara have been treated in the same regard. Take Manuel Vicente Mortera Sanchez, for example: he was a doctor from the village and would host the meetings of the local fan clubs at his house during the early years. He is held in such high esteem, that after his death, the official fan club was named in his honour.

Where areas of Cuba’s pre-revolutionary history have been lost to the annals of time, we can be grateful to Chacito that its football past hasn’t suffered the same fate. He has documented football in Cuba since its foundation in 1912 and without his work and dedication it is likely much of its history would have been lost and forgotten.

Although it has a virtually non-existent relationship with modern football, it is a country laden with its romance, and it is one of the sport’s playboys who has an unlikely love affair with the country.

"I feel Cuban," Diego Maradona told reporters in December 2016. The 1986 World Cup winner made the declaration to reporters at the funeral of former president Fidel Castro. "My heart, my body and my blood, l would give for the Cuban flag, for Cuba."

“Share Maradona's politics or not,” football writer Simon Kuper wrote in 2007, “[but] at least he has them,” and it was within a year of winning Mexico ‘86 that Maradona fell in love with the socialist republic. An infatuation has endured ever since.

In the early 2000s he spent four years living in Havana after he accepted Fidel Castro's help with the drug addiction that has haunted his entire adult life. He received specialist treatment whilst on the island and when he became Argentina manager in 2008 he did so feeling that he owed his life to Cuba and its people “who gave [him] so much.”

That inaugural visit in 1987 would turn an already burning light of anti-imperialism and US aggression into an inferno, with Maradona vociferous in support for his adopted country and its leader.

“I don’t care about being gracious, when someone defends the United States, I defend Cuba. Fidel is a great man. I have him tattooed on my leg,” he stated.

It would continue to be the case, and as recently as February 2018 the FlFA Player of the Century was allegedly denied a US visa for comments he made about President Donald Trump.

"He's a comic. Every time I see him on TV, I switch the channel over," he told teleSUR in a TV interview, “he’s a puppet.”

It was just the latest in a string of criticism aimed at US Presidents. In 2005 he described George Bush as a 'murderer' and urged his countrymen to protest Bush's presence in Argentina at a summit the then-president was attending: "as far as I am concerned, he is a murderer; he looks down on us and tramples over us.”

The Argentine’s loyalty is reciprocated. Nelson Curiel Rodriguez is the president of one of the Villa Clara Fan Clubs. Its name? El Diego Armando Maradona.

"He has always declared his love for Cuba and above all the Cuban people. Personally, I am very proud of that because Cuba is my country.”

Just 90 miles from Florida, Cuba has been held at arm's length ever since the Revolution and overthrow of then-president Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Relations have been sour, hostile and agitated over the years, but football, as it so often does, provided a potential olive branch in 2015.

With Barack Obama’s administration making attempts to normalise relations with Cuba, New York Cosmos became the first US club to play on the island since the turn of the century. The goodwill friendly was fronted by Brazilian legend Pele off the pitch and Real Madrid icon Raul on it. The Cosmos won 4-1 but it was never about the football.

Many are not convinced by the overtures. There remains a bitter familial feud at the heart of Cuba-US relations in the form of the Diaz-Balarts. Fidel Castro's first wife Mirta is from the Diaz-Balart family who were prominent in Cuba's political scene at the time of the Revolution. The Diaz-Balarts left Cuba when Fidel took power and have led much of the economic aggression against it from Miami, where they have held positions of political office ever since. Mirta, thought to be back in Cuba as of last year, is the aunt of anti-Castro Republican Party US Representative Mario Diaz-Balart.

If the Revolution failed, or had the US maintained cordial relations, perhaps Cuban representation in US soccer would have materialised. There are certainly parallels to be drawn with its smaller Antillean neighbours. Though US territory, Puerto Rico are one such example.

In 2004, Hugo Hernan Maradona, Diego’s brother, managed the island side in the A-League, formerly the division at the top of the US pyramid prior to the creation of the MLS in 1996. Since then, various incarnations of a Puerto Rico team have come and gone, with the version Hugo was involved with, Puerto Rico Islanders, ending in 2012.

The island's most recent flirtation with US soccer lasted less than three years. In 2015, Puerto Rico FC entered the North American Soccer League as an expansion franchise, existing alongside the island's own domestic league, but in March 2018 they announced that they would not be entering the division for the upcoming season due to the damage caused by Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Rico’s forays amounted to very little and other Caribbean nations have had a similar lack of success. Antigua Barracuda FC competed in the United Soccer League in the 2011 and 2012 seasons, finishing bottom on both occasions before folding; and Bermuda Hogges FC, co-owned by former Manchester City midfielder Shaun Goater and at one point boasting Burnley’s Nakhi Wells, spent several years playing in the US Soccer League system too, fielding a team in the so-called fourth tier - the Premier Development League. Neither team survived in US soccer, citing financial difficulties as the reason for their folding.

Though Bermuda, Antigua, and Puerto Rico have failed to reap any lasting benefit from participation in US soccer, Canada - with Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact, and Toronto - has, and there is reason to believe Cuba could have done so too.

Firstly, they are much bigger than the aforementioned islands, with Puerto Rico coming closest to Cuba’s 11.5m population with 3.3m, and Bermuda and Antigua being able to fit their entire populations into the Nou Camp; in February 2019 Cuba beat Bermuda 5-0; and lastly, they also have an excellent track record in other high-profile international sports, such as boxing and baseball.

Most importantly, however, Cuba has proven itself capable of producing players with the potential to have successful careers across the world. From the MLS, to La Liga, and now on the brink of the Premier League, the Cuban footballers are beginning to draw back the Caribbean Iron Curtain.

The second part of Behind The Caribbean Curtain will be published next Wednesday.

Words by Jordan Florit.

Editor - J.S. Leatherbarrow.

Original photograph by Jordan Florit & artwork by FATC - all rights reserved.

Jordan Florit