Behind the Caribbean Curtain - Part Three

Representing my country is a source of pride and could contribute to a possible improvement in the national selection.
— Christian Joel Sanchez

By Jordan Florit

Defections and emigration have cost Cuba some of its best footballers since the turn of the century, and the pull is strong - the stage, money, and fame that modern football offers.

Much of Cuba’s intelligentsia stay in their homeland with no desire to leave. After all, it is an elite academia and research-led country with an excellent approach to education, so much so that you’ll even find American students studying subjects such as medicine at the University of Havana. It doesn’t offer the same incentive on the football pitch though. give an alternative viewpoint, believing there’s Cuban footballers abroad who feel a pull back to their country.

Two of these bright prospects interviewed by CubaDebate are Sporting Gijon goalkeeper Christian Joel Sanchez, and Atletico Madrid defender Carlos Vazquez, both of whom emigrated from Cuba by legal means as children.

Born in Havana, the 18-year old ‘keeper Christian Joel has been with Gijon since he was 12 but could have opted for Spanish giants Real Madrid.

"I played in a small team in Gijón when I got the call from Real Madrid, but Gijon had already spoken with my parents about me joining in the following season, and ultimately the decision was to join Gijon, something I do not regret.

His father, Lazaro Joel Sanchez, was a goalkeeper too.

"The first gloves I saw were his, he was a Pinar del Río player for many years and he also represented the national team, so it instilled in me that passion.”

CubaDebate emphasised the AFC’s new policy of permitting players who play abroad to represent the national team and Sanchez’s response was one of desire.

"I would love to. Representing my country is a source of pride and could contribute to a possible improvement in the national selection.”

If he does go on to one day play for Real Madrid it would bring a unique story full circle. In 1936, Havana-born Jesus Alonso Fernandez, or ‘Chus’, signed for Real Madrid. He would never represent Cuba at international level, despite his homeland reaching the quarter finals of the 1938 World Cup when Chus was 21-years old, but he does has a unique place in the history of the Madrid giants, scoring in both the first ever game at the Santiago Bernabeu as well as its first competitive one.

Similar to the story of Gijon’s Sanchez is Atleti’s Carlos Vazquez, who grew up in Havana and has memories of playing football as a toddler with none other than Diego Maradona, who had befriended the boy’s father and told him his son would be a footballer one day.

The 19-year old is now in the youth ranks of Diego Simeone’s team after the opportunity to trial for numerous clubs.

“Last year I was at San Fernando CD (Segunda Division B), where I made great progression, and this gained me the attention of big clubs like Rayo Vallecano and Getafe, as well as others from outside the Madrid community, but I wanted to play for Atlético and I decided on this offer. When I played at the Oviedo Cup I was offered a trial at Manchester United, but I was not convinced because I was very small. I also had options to go to Valladolid, but in the end I decided to play at Atleti, and I do not regret it."

Both are awaiting their first call-up to the national team and hopefully when it comes it will not be obfuscated. The attitude of Cuban football fans show that they’re not convinced.

Their biggest domestic talent is Maykel Reyes, another player to have spent time at Villa Clara. He has played abroad, with his country’s blessing, both in Mexico for Cruz Azul Premier, and in the Dominican Republic, all the while continuing to represent the national team. Following a leg break, he is now back home playing for Pinar del Rio, a club in the northwest of the country, but a rumoured move to the Czech Republic has understandably worried some fans.

“[It is] very good news. It would be a lot to ask but hopefully we could see him in one of the two Prague teams. Regardless of what is going to happen to him as a footballer, I think it is very important that he remains eligible for the national team. Maykel is the best we have here,” said GolCuba viewer Daniel Cid Gonzalez.

Undoubtedly their most exciting prospect at present is Norwich City’s Onel Hernandez. Having emigrated from Cuba to Germany as a six-year old, the winger has worked his way up the German football ladder since 2010, culminating in a 2018 move from Eintracht in Germany’s second tier to the Championship in England.

The winger fast became a favourite among Canaries fans, endearing himself to them with his first two goals coming on the opening day of the 2018/19 season sealing a 2-2 draw after twice being behind, as well as his love of the simple things.

“I love the city. I like that I live next to the stadium and next to me is a Morrisons, which is good so I can buy my food. Also, I’d never seen an Argos before in my life. I walked inside and saw the catalogue with things you can order. You can order bikes, TVs – we don’t have this is Germany. Argos has everything and I’ve never seen this in my life before. When I need something, I buy it from Argos! I live in a perfect area.”

At the time of writing, Norwich are top of the Championship by five points with seven games remaining. Should they get promoted, Onel Hernandez will become the first Cuban to play in the Premier League.

“It’s a dream right now but we have to take things step-by-step,” Hernandez told The Eastern Daily Press, “of course it’s nice to dream about being promoted but there’s a long way to go. There are lots more games and we have to fight.”

Hernandez’s first full season in English football has been impressive. He’s managed 8 goals and 7 assists in the 36 appearances he has made, particularly impressing off the bench, with 2 goals and 2 assists in six substitute appearances. Along with his opening day exploits, Hernandez scored in the most recent East Anglian derby, a tie Norwich won 3-0, but his most incisive performance came in a 27-minute super sub appearance.

When he came on his side were already 1-0 down and he had barely got going when Nottingham Forest scored their second two minutes after the change. Nine minutes later, the game looked gone thanks to Matthew Cash’s second goal of the game putting the visitors three up. A quick reply courtesy of Mario Vrancic gave Norwich a glimmer of hope.

With three minutes of injury time already played, Onel Hernandez scored what was surely just a consolation goal, but another four minutes were played, and the Cuban struck again in the 97th minute to bring the score level at 3-3. It was the kind of bizarre result you may not be surprised to find out happened on Boxing Day.

Hernandez owes his chance to play in the Premier League to Daniel Farke. The Norwich manager joined the club in the summer of 2017 from Borussia Dortmund II, the same club Norwich had brought in David Wagner from previously, and since doing so Farke has garnered a reputation for an astute eye in the transfer market. The man with a business degree has signed no less than 8 players from Germany, helping them turn from a mid-table outfit to promotion favourites.

It’s not the first time Cuban footballers have found some success in Germany either. In 1999 a failed joint enterprise between the AFC and fourth tier side Bonner SC saw 15 of Cuba’s national team join at once. However, many other clubs, as well as the German FA, were not happy with the deal, and despite it being legal and above board, the president of Cologne denied the Cubans visas and although they played a number of friendlies for the club, they had to return before a ball was kicked competitively.

A few did stay, securing visas through the conventional methods, and went on to have modest careers in the lower reaches of the German football pyramid.

And with that, was very much the end of Cuba’s impact on European football for well over a decade, no matter how modest it was.

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

Words by Jordan Florit.

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

Jordan Florit