Islands | America’s internationalists have ‘a vague idea’ of Cuban life

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Pre-game pageantry as the North American Soccer League makes a diplomatic call to Havana in 1978 and Clive Toye stocks up on cigars. Yes, “Chicago Stings” is a typo. (Video courtesy Dave Brett Wasser)

Television coverage of the Sept 6 World Cup qualifier between the United States and Cuba, at Pedro Marrero Stadium in Havana, offered a glimpse into the fierce inequities within the CONCACAF region. Cuba supporters pushed together beneath 80-year-old roofing to escape periodic showers, although, according to Steven Goff of the Washington Post, “holes of all shapes and sizes allowed rain to flow unimpeded.”

Floodlights failed before and during the match, a 1–0 U.S. victory, casting parts of the pitch in shadow. Spectators had gained entry for one peso, slightly less than five cents, while a few backers of the United States, apparently flouting Treasury Department restrictions on travel, styled American-flag bandannas as masks and wore sunglasses. Were they trying to remain incognito or merely mocking Cuban revolutionary traditions? Who knows?

American media noted before the match that the qualifier represented the first visit of the full national side since a 1947 exhibition—a 5–2 Cuban victory. But they ignored the visit in 1978 by the Chicago Sting of the North American Soccer League.

Toye

Having only watched a recording once, I do not recall particulars of the match, nor do I recall the result. It was broadcast on Cuban television, the first visit of an American professional sports team to the island since 1959. Cosmos president Toye, making connections through Lamar Hunt (see 20 Dec 06) and George H. W. Bush, helped arrange a Cosmos trip to Beijing and Shanghai in 1977 and also sought an invitation from Cuba. Later, with the Chicago Sting training in Barbados, the invitation from Havana did arrive.

Toye embraced the game’s “geopolitical aspect … so that [soccer] could grow out of the purely sporting into other pages, other media.” In his memoir, A Kick in the Grass (St. Johann, 2006), he links a Cuba visit to this “ongoing campaign to intrude soccer into people’s minds by doing the newsworthy, the unexpected. …” The strategy also included a visit by Dynamo Moscow to the United States in 1972.

In an interview Sept 5, Toye said, “We thought we were doing America a favor, quite plainly we were doing America a favor, by introducing them to a wider world. Did we have such lofty thoughts to believe this would change the world? I don’t think so. There was a certain Robin Hood element about this—robbing the rich to feed the poor, using owners’ money to develop the game. They may not always have seen eye to eye with us in that regard.”

Current American players have not held forth on the off-field aspects of the Saturday-night match. “We all read and hear about Cuba, and see it on TV,” Landon Donovan told the Miami Herald, “so we have a vague idea of what goes on there.” In comments to the New York Times, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, a Columbia University economics professor, did not show much interest either in the game’s geopolitical implications: “Obviously, it’s a unique situation for all of the history. But the emphasis Saturday night is on getting the three points.”

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