In the late 1960s, the brand-new North American Soccer League knew it faced a challenge: attracting U.S. fans in a country where soccer was way down on the list behind baseball, football, basketball and hockey.
That’s one reason the Baltimore Bays hired Clive Toye away from his native England to run the team. As a former sportswriter, he knew soccer. A few years later, in 1971, he joined the expansion New York Cosmos for their inaugural season. One of his tasks was to create excitement any way he could.
"For example," Toye says, "I brought Moscow Dynamo in at a time when relations between the U.S. and Russia were extremely hostile."
That was in 1972.
"So you can imagine the headlines: 'The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!' And we had front-page stories about it, mentioning soccer," Toye says. "No other way could we have gotten soccer in those days on the front page."
But Toye found some more ways to do that.
In 1977, he signed international superstars Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer. He took the Cosmos on a world tour that generated splashy headlines and drew large crowds. In New York, anyway, Toye had succeeded in building a fan base. At the end of 1977, Toye left the Cosmos to join the NASL’s Chicago Sting. But the Sting had no superstars.
In early 1978, Toye got a call from the Cuba Soccer Federation. It wanted to bring the Sting to Havana for a friendly match, or amistoso, against the Cuban national team. Toye knew the 20-year-old embargo of Cuba by the United States could be a problem. But …
"It was a period when something could happen, some weakness was there," Toye says. "And, knowing political weakness, I took advantage of it to try and get to Cuba."
The Sting were training in Haiti for the upcoming season. They had been there for weeks.
"I found an old World War II Dakota troop carrier at the airport in Port-au-Prince and rented it," Toye says.
Toye told the players that he had set up a friendly match with the Cuban team.
"It was pretty hot down in the Caribbean," says former Sting forward Dan McCrudden. "We were ready to be home."
McCrudden says team officials pressed their case.
" 'Hey, listen, you’re the first team, United States professional team, to go into Cuba since the ’59 revolution. It’s gonna be a great opportunity and pretty exciting.' So I think we started to get a little bit pumped for it."
McCrudden is a U.S. citizen, so he knew he wasn’t allowed to travel to Cuba. Team captain Bruce Wilson, a Canadian, didn’t have to worry about that. He had another concern.
"It was a little bit scary, to be honest," Wilson says.
On March 19, the team boarded the DC-3 Dakota.
"It was an older, rickety-looking thing, and sounded like an old and rickety thing," McCrudden says.
The transport plane circled Cuba several times, leaving the team to wonder if there were clearance issues — or worse. Wilson remembers the first thing Toye did when they arrived at the airport.
"Clive Toye was very happy to get his supply of cigars," he says.
"I asked someone, I said, 'Does anyone have a cigar on them?' " Toye says. "And a guy said, 'How many you smoke?' And we all had a good laugh and a good chat."
Toye talked up the airport officials while players passed through Customs. On the way to the team hotel, McCrudden and Wilson took in the sights of Havana from the team bus.
"We were looking around, and it was like all these old U.S. cars from like the 1950s that you’d seen in pictures," McCrudden says.
"The pollution was absolutely rampant," Wilson says. "Everywhere you looked, there were soldiers."
Not An Ordinary Trip
The Cuban hosts took them on tours of the city.
"It couldn’t have been pleasanter," Toye insists. "It was, in many respects, a typical visit by a soccer team to play a soccer game."
But, in other respects, it wasn’t.
“I had an empty chair sitting next to me in the front row over the VIP box, which was there in case Fidel Castro came to have a look.”Clive Toye
One night during a walk, Dan McCrudden wandered onto a street behind the team hotel.
"And we’re looking at this thing that’s covered — had a cover on it," McCrudden says. "We weren’t exactly sure the first day what it was. And then, some part of the second day during our walk, they had actually taken the top off to do something with it. And it turned out to be a missile. At some point, those missiles were pointed to the United States."
McCrudden says that idea, along with the constant military presence in Havana, was disconcerting. But conversations with Cuban citizens were welcome diversions.
"They were actually pretty eager to talk to us, knowing that we were Americans," McCrudden says. "And so we had a lot of very friendly people coming up to us and talking to us about what it was like to live in the US."
One night at a nearby park, one of the locals made a business proposition.
"He said he’d buy our jeans from us," McCrudden says.
Levi's were as hard to come by in Havana as Cuban cigars were in Chicago. But McCrudden says the negotiations never got underway.
"All of a sudden, he takes off. And then the next day when we see him, he said that we were being followed by the Cuban government. By the Secret Police."
Neither McCrudden nor Wilson encountered the Secret Police. Not that they knew of, anyway.
Time For Soccer
After two days of training, sightseeing and avoiding international intrigue, it was March 21. Game day.
"There was a little pomp and circumstance prior to us starting the game," McCrudden says. "So there was a little parade of the Cuban team and us marching out with our flags."
"I imagine I was involved with carrying one of the flags," Wilson says. "Was I?"
Yes. In fact, Bruce Wilson marched out behind a young woman bearing a sign that read "Chicago Stings" ... plural. The teams took to the pitch before 30,000 spectators.
"It was quite a big event," Wilson says.
"And I had an empty chair sitting next to me in the front row over the VIP box, which was there in case Fidel Castro came to have a look," Clive Toye says. "Which he didn’t."
“To this date, I don’t know how Clive got the approval from the U.S. government to fly there.”Dan McCrudden
After the official niceties, it was time to play.
"It had rained hard just prior to the game," Dan McCrudden says. "So the field was a little bit wet."
The Sting were impressed by the Cuban national team’s caliber of play. And that’s not all that impressed them.
"The crowd was good," McCrudden says. "They were appreciative. When they liked a play, they would clap twice. I thought that was very unusual."
The Cuban National Team won 2–0. But Bruce Wilson didn’t mind.
"You know, playing before a good crowd against a national team was very good preparation for us."
The Return Match
Toye’s vision had been that the Cuba trip would generate lots of interest in his fledgling team. But when the Cuban national team traveled to Chicago for a rematch on May 9, 1978 at Soldier Field, only 4,000 fans attended. The game ended in a 1–1 draw.
But, despite the lack of promotional pizzazz, Bruce Wilson considers himself and his Chicago Sting teammates to be trailblazers.
"One-hundred percent. There is no question about it. First American team allowed in there in 20-odd years, and then other teams followed."
That would take another 21 years. In 1999, the Baltimore Orioles played the Cuban national baseball team in Havana.
Dan McCrudden agrees that the Chicago Sting was ahead of its time. And he still marvels about his team’s trip to Cuba.
"To this date, I don’t know how Clive got the approval from the U.S. government to fly there."
That’s assuming the Sting even sought that approval. Or whether the team simply circumvented U.S. law. I asked Clive Toye about that more than once. I got the same answer each time.
He doesn’t remember.
"Well, I wish I could tell you. Um … might get myself in trouble if I did remember how to tell you."
Sometimes mysteries, even ones involving friendly games of soccer, are best left unsolved.
This segment aired on September 22, 2018.