Getting to Know Cuban Soccer

Prior to the Cosmos' historic visit to Havana, club historian Dr. David Kilpatrick takes a brief glimpse at over 90 years of professional soccer in Cuba.
Published Jun 1, 2015

By Dr. David Kilpatrick

The Cuban Men’s National Team that will host the New York Cosmos at the Estadio Pedro Marrero this Tuesday will help make strangers better neighbors, as we get to know one another and gain familiarity by coming together through sport. 

We have much to learn, beginning with the stadium where the game will be played.  Formerly known as Gran Stadium Cervecería Tropical, or simply La Tropical, built in 1937, the stadium was renamed for a revolutionary martyr in the Moncada Barracks attack that started the Cuban Revolution on July 26, 1953. 

Asociación de Fútbol de Cuba  was founded in 1924 and has been affiliated with FIFA since 1929.  The first Caribbean team to reach the FIFA World Cup Finals, the national team’s sole appearance saw them reach the quarterfinals in 1938.  They have played the U.S. Men's National Team just 10 times, winning and drawing once each. Along with their remarkable 1938 World Cup run, perhaps the other great achievement in Cuban soccer history was playing defending Gold Medalists Poland to a scoreless draw in the 1976 Olympics. 

Ranked 107th in the World by FIFA, Cuba is ranked 34th, one place behind the USA and one ahead of France, in FIFA’s Futsal rankings.

Current President of the Asociación de Fútbol de Cuba, Luis Hernandez, played in that opening match of the Montreal Olympic football tournament.  And he witnessed the only other time a professional soccer team from the United States visited Cuba, when the Clive Toye-led Chicago Sting lost to the Cuban National Team in 1978.

“The Cosmos are one of the most well-known teams worldwide,” Hernandez recently told, “It's a prestige to welcome them to Cuba. It's going to help the development of the Cuban National Team.”

Soccer is quickly gaining in popularity in Cuba.  Beginning with broadcasts of El Clásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid four years ago, La Liga and Bundesliga matches now feature live on free local broadcast TV, so Raúl and Marcos Senna will be familiar to the local fans in Havana.  The Cosmos visit is timely then, not only for diplomatic reasons, as a new generation of Cuban sports fans become more and more interested in the global game. 

Cuba has an important historical link with Real Madrid. Havana-born midfielder Jesús (Chus) Alonso Fernández scored the first official goal at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium. Chus Alonso scored 65 goals for Los Merengues in 159 games and is one of eight Cubans to have played for the Spanish giants.

With the majority of the national team playing in the domestic Campeonato Nacional de Fútbol de Cuba, most of Cosmos Country as well as those watching nationwide on ONE World Sports, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes may be unfamiliar with the current crop of Cuban footballers.

If recent form dictates playing time Tuesday, Ariel Martínez may feature. Martínez scored Cuba’s sole goal in their 2-1 loss to Haiti in the Caribbean Cup third-place match last November, and scored three in his latest league match for Sancti Spíritus over La Habana, bringing his tally to seven on the season.

Camagüey have a match in hand and a 12-point lead over their closest rivals to the title with a 13-1-3 record in the 10-team league. Sander Fernandez of Ciego de Ávila and Yenier Marquez of Villa Clara share the league lead in scoring with 12 goals each, 18 games into the domestic season. Marquez is the leading scorer on the current Cuba squad, with 13 goals in 113 appearances.  Only goalkeeper Odelin Molina has more caps in the side.  With 122 caps he has made more appearances for his national team than any other current players, but young Sandy Sanchez was brilliant in goal at the 2014 Central American and Caribbean Games. 

Taking Mexico to penalties in the CAC Games semifinal this past November, Cuba were on the brink of perhaps a third most historic moment in the nation’s soccer history, just a minute away from a shocking win.  Yordan Santa put Cuba into the lead with a 98th minute goal, but a free kick by Raul Lopez rescued El Tri  at the 120th minute to send the match to shootout.  Losing 7-6 from the spot to the eventual champions, the mostly under-21 Cuban squad beat Honduras to earn the bronze with a 3-1 scoreline, scoring twice in an added half-hour. 

So it will be a blend of youth and experience facing the Cosmos when they play at the Estadio Pedro Marrero. The Cubans will make at least three appearances in the United States later this summer, beginning their Gold Cup 2015 campaign against Mexico in Chicago on July 9.  They will also face Trinidad and Tobago in Glendale, Arizona and Guatemala in Charlotte, North Carolina on the 12th and 15th in Group C play. 

They hope to match if not improve upon their quarterfinal appearance at the last Gold Cup in 2013. Cuba qualified by making the semifinals of the 2014 Caribbean Cup, a competition they won as recently as 2012. 

Some say there are no friendlies in football, and once the ball is put into play both the Cosmos and their hosts will be playing to win, but the great hope of this friendly is the surely cultivation of friendship between two nations geographically close but culturally unfamiliar. The New York Cosmos visit to Havana will allow U.S. and Cuban sports fans the chance to get reacquainted, a unique opportunity for cultural exchange afforded by the restoration of diplomatic relations between our neighboring nations. 

Cuba will be the 42nd nation visited by the Cosmos.  Once more the Beautiful Game provides an historic occasion to cultivate friendships through the spirit of sport and cosmopolitanism.