Behind the Caribbean Curtain - Part Four

Today, Cuba’s domestic football scene dances dangerously with the pull of Europe and modern football’s riches in a world more connected, more informed, than ever. It could perhaps take some lessons from its own dancefloor; perhaps take something from the mambo with its “rhythmic charm, informality and eloquence of the Cuban people.” That description came from the godfather of Mambo, Antonio Arcano, who lived roughly half his life pre-revolution, the other half post-revolution, and its entirety in Cuba.
— Jordan Florit

By Jordan Florit

Attempting to monitor Cuban football as a non-Spanish speaker is like trying to catch a moth at night; it’ll occasionally show up as the light gets behind it, but most of the time you’re left clapping in the dark empty handed.

Yet Cuba has had its fair share of domestic successes, both in recent years and during the height of its diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union. Cuba was a particularly popular destination with teams in Latin America during that era.

In 1963, Brazilian side Madureira SC famously toured Cuba, winning all five of their matches on the island. The club from Rio finished their tour with a 3-2 win in Havana, watched by Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.

In what is now known as Che's Motorcycle Diaries, he noted down that he had coached football throughout his travels around South America to fund his journey, and he himself was a goalkeeper, although rugby interested him more in his youth.

The Serie D side hit the headlines in 2013 when they released a kit inspired by the 50th anniversary of their Cuban adventures. Both the outfield and goalkeeper's shirt feature the famous Alberto Korda print of Guevara: the outfield top is burgundy and carries one of Che's iconic phrases, "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until Victory, Always!) and the #1 jersey replicates the flag of Cuba.

Such is the sense of brotherhood between Cubans and their Latin American family, the Zuluetanos at Villa Clara even have a Brazil Fan Club. So fanatical are the people of the village that the Brazil Fan Club president, Luis Alberto Pérez Bruzains, a former player himself, named his son after 'The King of Stepovers,' Denilson. Yet it was a political rather than a regional friend that really helped Cuba elevate its footing in the footballing world.

In 1969 the Cuban Football Association appointed the North Korean Kim Yong-ha, who would go on to be Cuba’s most successful foreign manager. For the next decade they dominated the regional international competitions, thanks to the foundations he laid.

Kim had the vision to take the national team on a six-month training camp in his homeland, as well as an onward tour of Vietnam. Whilst in Asia, the national team played sixteen friendlies evenly split between the two host countries. The long tour, far from home comforts, was to instil disciplines Kim believed were of vital importance: teamwork, spirit, dedication, and endeavour.

“He is the best foreign coach ever to sit on the bench of the Cuban national team,” his assistant manager Sergio Padron Moreno, who would go on to succeed him and continue his success, once said, "[he] knew a lot about technique, he imposed a great tactical discipline and got the best out of every player. Those six months were very fruitful.”

They nearly didn't return alive, though. Whilst in Vietnam, the Cuban government allege that an American plot to kill the team was attempted. Staying in a local village one night, American B-52 planes were spotted approaching and the defensive air sirens sounded. Along with the village's people, the entire squad were forced to take cover in underground tunnels, where they spent hours waiting to safely emerge.

At the time, US President Richard Nixon was sending nuclear armed B-52s to the vicinity in a show of aggression to the Soviet Union. The Cuban national team’s presence? Surely a coincidence. Fortunately, the national team returned unscathed and undaunted by the upcoming Central American & Caribbean Games, galvanised by their experiences in North Korea and Vietnam.

The tournament, held in Panama, saw Kim Yong-ha guide his team to a trophy at the first attempt as Cuba won their first gold medal for 40 years and the first of the Revolution. More successes followed. Kim led the national team to Bronze at the Pan American Games in 1971, as Cuba finished silver overall, second only to the US and ahead of much larger countries such as Canada, Brazil and Mexico.

In the football, Cuba collected 5 wins, 1 draw and 2 losses. They finished top of their Group, which included reigning champions Mexico who had hosted the World Cup a year prior, reaching the quarter finals. In the final round, Cuba finished third, recording three wins and two defeats. Overall, they achieved victories over: Mexico (2-0); Trinidad & Tobago twice (both 1-0); United States (2-0), and Canada (1-0). It would be Kim Yong-ha's send-off as he returned to North Korea afterwards leaving his assistant, Moreno, to take over.

Kim's legacy was one that lasted the entire decade, with Cuba enjoying their second and third successive CAC Games Golds in 1976 & 78; their first ever Olympic appearance in football at Canada 1976; and a quarter-final exit in the Olympics four years later in Moscow.

“As well as helping us to win the CAC Games of 1970, it acted as a good starting point and strengthened the competitive training of the group of players who would become the protagonists of the subsequent good results," Kim's assistant-turned-successor Moreno explained years later.

Cuba attempted to repeat the feat the following decade, returning to North Korea for a pre-tournament training camp in 1985 and once more it resulted in a Gold at the CAC Games the following year. In recent years neither nation has achieved footballing recognition on the global stage.

Today, Cuba’s domestic football scene dances dangerously with the pull of Europe and modern football’s riches in a world more connected, more informed, than ever. It could perhaps take some lessons from its own dancefloor; perhaps take something from the mambo with its “rhythmic charm, informality and eloquence of the Cuban people." That description came from the godfather of Mambo, Antonio Arcano, who lived roughly half his life pre-revolution, the other half post-revolution, and its entirety in Cuba.

The mambo was defined by its freedom - it had no formal steps and no basic steps; it wasn't accepted by professional dancers outside of Cuba; and American dance schools considered it "extreme” and “undisciplined.”

The same could be said of its running of the AFC. Anri Gustavo Garit Herrera, an expert on Cuban football, told Belgian documentary maker Remo Beutels in 2010, "our football does not work like your football. Our players do not move teams for millions of dollars, not even thousands of dollars. Football here is overseen by INDER and the Cuban Football Association, that is to say administered by the government. Players move teams, but through trades or for personal reasons.”

It was an outdated stance even then and in the near-decade since, have the authorities really done enough to advance the game? A policy that isn’t exacted [permitting players who play abroad to represent the national team] is the thinnest of veils to pull over the fans’ eyes, even if it is made with good intentions and a desire to implement it by football’s immediate governing bodies.

Though the Campeonato de Cuba is fully functioning and participation healthy, it risks losing all appeal to budding players if they cannot see a route to the top of world football. When I was in Cuba in 2017 it was Barcelona and Real Madrid shirts worn by the fans I saw, and there was even a splattering of the shirts of non-Spanish giants such as Juventus and Bayern Munich. The one football fan I spoke to at length was a Manchester City fan and he told me the Premier League was the most-watched competition in the country with all games available to watch the day after they’d taken place. With internet access at a premium, that is as good as live for many.

Some will lay the blame at INDER’s door, at the door of a restrictive government with over-cautiousness at the fore; others will blame the cold shoulder of their large and imposing neighbour the US, with their embargo that prevents players participating in US leagues whilst maintaining Cuban residency and the ability to play for their national team.

Whatever the persuasion, the infrastructure is there. Sixteen teams take part across the two regional divisions, with over 450 players registered in the top tier of Cuban football. Scouring the team sheets shows that the sport has long had a global hold on the island. There are players born in and around years of World Cups carrying the names of those tournaments’ stars: at Pinar Del Rio is a defender named Rigoberto Garcia, born in the year Rigobert Song was at the World Cup 2002 with Cameroon; at the same club, born in the same year, is a Luis Enrique; at Villa Clara is a Ronaldo, as there are at other clubs, born in 1997, the year their namesake made his move to Europe and PSV, and a year prior to lighting up France ‘98; for Camaguey a defender born in 1999 carries the name Aldair, and born in 2005 a striker called Adriano.

Even more prevalent is the widespread use of the letter ‘Y’ in names, a letter almost redundant in starting first names of boys in Spain; the average baby name website will offer 10 suggestions. Among the rosters of the Cuban teams, however, sees every fifth or sixth player sporting a name beginning with Y: Yoel, Yoelvis, Yadiel, Yaniel, Yoandris, Yasiel, Yeinier, the list goes on. Why?

Yoani Sanchez, a prominent Cuban dissident blogger, named her blog ‘Generacion Y’ in tribute to “people like me, with names that start with, or contain a ‘Y’, born in Cuba in the '70s and '80s,” citing the Russian influence from Cuba’s close relationship with the Soviet Union, as well as names being a way to express freedom. Sanchez says “[we] did not experience [freedom] in other spheres of life, [that] vanished when we…. played with language and created real tongue-twisters like the famous baseball player ‘Vicyohandri.’”

It’s that creativity and freedom Cuban football now begs for, perfectly encapsulated by one of their current domestic stars. His name? Raycharles Herrera Cruz. The Cubans have reached out beyond their borders in naming their children, let’s hope they’re allowed to reach out and play.

This was the final part of Behind The Caribbean Curtain.

Words by Jordan Florit.

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

Jordan Florit