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

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)

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