The World Football Cup in Cuba

Times and affinities.

The Brazil 2014 World Football Cup was intensely lived in Cuba and, at least in Havana, with great effervescence, unleashed emotions and fanaticisms expressed in diverse spaces, where the fans exhibited the symbols of their teams, sang their victories or cried over their defeats in each of the matches until the last one. But, why that football passion in a Caribbean country that never gets through the regional eliminatory rounds? Is it a sudden fever?

For those of us who were children in 1959 football was a sport that was way behind the taste of the majority, headed by baseball and boxing. However, it did have some fans and its practice grew decades later, as we will soon see.

Football emerged in Havana as an element of modernity brought here by the Anglo-Saxons, but boosted by the vertiginous development of the Spanish societies of training and recreation in the three first decades of the 20th century.

Football’s structure during those years was dominated by Spaniards who had settled here; the majority of the players of the best Spanish clubs and even the public at the stadium was predominately made up by the Spanish colony.

There was a national will for the 1930 Central American Sports Games held in Havana to get out of Spanish football, to give it an identity, and the Cuban victory in that sport during the games added weight to the bet, but contrary to those wishes, the Spanish societies continued dominating during much more time.

Cuba got for the first and only time to a World Football Cup in France in 1938. Its results were a victory against Rumania (2-1), a tie (3-3) with the same country and a defeat (0-8) against Sweden, a Cup semi finalist. The Cuban team ranked in 7th place among the 15 participants.

The following years, during the 1940s and 1950s, baseball was unrivalled on the Cuban sports scene, in the amateur category as well as in the professional, and football entered a long lethargy.

CHANGING TIMES, MEDIA COVERAGE AND FANS

In 1958, when Brazil won its first World Cup, the Brazilians increasingly won over Cuban fans; this increased with the second one, during the following World Cup, and took on great proportions during Mexico 1970 with Brazil’s third victory. Garrincha, Vavá, Tostao, Rivelino, Carlos Alberto and, of course Pelé, acquired heroic statures and, since then, the Brazilians were the reference of the best football.

The teams of the socialist camp, the “sister countries” (Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union), were also viewed with sympathy in this country, due to the political nearness and the fame of some of their players, like Hungarian Ferenc Puskas and the mythical Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin.

Argentina started adding fans with its victory at the 1978 Cup and its fans turned into legions after 1986, Maradona’s World Cup. By then, three European nations had fans in Cuba: Holland, Italy and Germany.

To the extent that Cuban TV increased the coverage of the World Cups, starting in the 1980s, football fans started increasing and adding sympathizers to the strongest teams, those of South America and Europe. The great majority of those fans are young people and adolescents, a mass of youth that follows every day the three strongest leagues in the world. That’s where their idols are, or were (Totti, Vieri, Maldini, Bekham, Owen, Zidane, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Messi, Cristiano….), and their teams (Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, among the first).

These young Cubans’ sympathies with the teams of the different countries are completely unrelated to ideological reasons – as they could be in the past -, but rather strictly sports related, and they are frequently related to their like for certain clubs, or for certain players. For example, the followers of the AC Milan are undoubtedly fans of Italy, as well as many of the fans of the Real Madrid or the Barcelona are of Spain.

The huge media coverage of football in the last five years has exponentially increased its fans on the island. Fans who flaunt their preferences with tattoos of their clubs on their body and all types of icons at home, something never seen with baseball, at least with that magnitude.

New audience records were registered in Havana during the recently ended Cup, followed in homes, bars, cafeterias, cinemas (Yara and Riviera) and to top it off, the coliseum of Sports City, crowded and insufficient to hold all those who wanted to see there the final.

Never before have so many German, Brazilian, Argentinean, Spanish…flags been seen in the Cuban capital. The defeat of Brazil (which still has the most fans) was bitterly cried over here and Germany’s victory was celebrated. On the following day of the final game there were still evident signs of celebration in the streets.

These are other times. Those of us who were children in 1959 now suffer with the elimination of Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Uruguay, or the defeat of Argentina because of our Latin American spirit, but our children (fans of Italy, Holland, France, Germany, Spain, Argentina and Brazil), had other reasons. Times are changing. (2014)

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