The U.S. soccer team will face off against Cuba this Saturday in Havana for a World Cup qualifying match. While the team and a few U.S. journalists have been granted permission to land on Cuban soil, U.S. soccer fans won’t be able to see the game. Bill Littlefield explores the reality of politics and sports in Cuba.
Recent history has taught us what to expect when a U.S. National Soccer Team hosts Cuba. At an Olympic qualifier in Tampa last March, the two teams played to a one-one draw…then the visitors returned home short seven players. But what happens when the U.S. team plays in Cuba? We haven’t sent a soccer team there since 1947. On Saturday, the U.S. will play in Cuba again, this time in a World Cup qualifier. Despite present restrictions, the team can go, which is good, and some journalists from the U.S. have been given special permission to attend, but U.S. fans who wish to see the game in person will have to break the law to do so. According to Luis Hernandez, President of the Cuban Football Association, his country attributes no political significance to the game. "The U.S. players are just athletes, soccer players, and we are, too," he said. That’s not precisely the attitude Cuban officials have previously brought to the juxtaposition of sports and politics, but what if this time Mr. Hernandez means it? Wouldn’t it be a fine thing if officials in the U.S. saw it the same way? If soccer fans living within a short flight of Havana could hop on a small plane and catch the game? Heck, they could be back home and safe from the pernicious influence of decaying communism by midnight. Airport security is already set up to insure that they could bring no more than three ounces of anything desirable into Cuba. Expecting athletes to be role models for our children is demonstrably risky, and it would be dumb to assume that just because wars have occasionally been delayed or interrupted so combatants and innocents on both sides of a conflict could watch a soccer game, a sport can turn intransigence to receptivity or prejudice to understanding. Still, it’s pleasant to imagine that U.S. soccer fans in Miami might attend a game in Cuba, which is about as far from Miami as Tampa is, just for the sake of attending the game…just for the sake of enjoying the experience in the company of fans on the other side of the field attending the game for the same reason…to enjoy it. They would have that in common. And once they’d established that bond, they could explore what else they might have in common, and wonder together about the distinctions between them that their governments have long insisted they acknowledge.