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

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.


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.”

Dave Zirin, in his Edge of Sports column and the recent People’s History of Sport in the United States (New Press, 2008), traces the long-standing aversion to connecting sport with political matters. He calls this perspective “rank stupidity and stunning hypocrisy.” We are not so sure that the responsibility for spreading awareness of the world and the inherent inequities, such as the mock parity involved in matching the United States and Cuba on an embargoed island in between hurricanes, rests with the athletes. But certainly the media bears responsibility for digging deeper than quoting Donovan (“We’re not going there to be political”) on his reading of intra-hemisphere affairs.

One interesting perspective, in an online article by Grant Wahl, comes from former Cuban international Maykel Galindo, who defected in 2004. He comments on the preference for other games in Cuba—baseball and boxing, in particular—and says that soccer fans would not wear national-team jerseys, because they cannot afford them. “When a player scores a goal and the game ends he really can’t give his shirt to the fans because it’s the only one he’s got,” he says. “You pretty much play the whole year with the same jersey. If someone wants to exchange jerseys, like in the Gold Cup, you can’t because otherwise you won’t have anything to wear for the next match.”

According to Matt Norman in When Saturday Comes (“Letter from … Cuba,” Apr 08, p. 38), FIFA in 2002 helped establish a national football center. But

playing surfaces for many league games remain more akin to pub-team pitches than anything in the English professional game; most grounds, more accurately described as unenclosed fields for the majority of clubs, have no floodlights, forcing the league to persist with mid-afternoon kick-off times, far from ideal in a sub-tropical climate.

The chances of American citizens learning much from this rare encounter are limited. Travel restrictions from the United States have been in place since the 1960s and strengthened in 2004. The economic embargo has lasted since 1962.

We will not receive a dispatch such as the journal entries that Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton offered during his Cuba sojourn in 1940. “Havana is more of a city” than New York, reads an April entry from Run to the Mountain: The Journals of Thomas Merton. Volume One, 1939–1942 (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), “because it is flesh and blood, bread and wine, matter charged with life.” He continues:

The gaiety of the bars and cafes is not locked in behind doors and vestibules: they are all open wide to the street, and the music and laughter overflow out into the street, and the passersby participate in it, and the cafes also participate in the noise and laughter and gaiety of the street. That is another characteristic of the Mediterranean type of city: the complete and vital interpenetration of every department of its public and common life. These are cities the real life of which is in the market place, the agora, the bazaar, the arcades. (181)

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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