Nobody disputes the fact that baseball is the island’s passion. It is the only spectacle that is capable of filling entire stadiums to the point of bursting. During these days, in a Spring that caresses us already, the framboyan trees begin to release their red flowers, as if they were being guided by an invisible and powerful hand.
Amid so much natural beauty, the baseball championship play-offs are underway. And in the city of Havana, they are being entertained by the performances of their favorite team, the Industrials, Cuban baseball’s banner team.
But our national sport has a heavy competitor amongst those who love sports. Football: the most universal sport over the last 147 years which has become the second most followed sport in the country.
Despite the fact that in Cuba tournaments that take place in backyards are of little quality, or they play in rough fields sown with potatoes, and the players could not be more mediocre, yet the number of football fans grows each day.
Of course, people don’t follow the local games. Instead, they look to the prestigious European leagues. Especially the Spanish league. Of all the clubs, Real Madrid, coached by the Chilean Manuel Pellegrini, and manager Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona are the ones that attract the most following.
The idols of young Cubans are the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo, from Madeira, or the Brazilian Kaka of “los merengues” (Real Madrid), and the golden boot winner of 2009, the Argentinian Lionel Messi, in the starting eleven of Barcelona.
The nostalgic colony of naturalized Galicians feel homesick for Deportivo de La Coruña, very far away in current performance from that of the great Super Deportivo, of the mid-90s, where Brazilians Bebeto, Djalmiha or “the grandfather”, Donato, shone.
Also, the Malian, Kanoute, and the Brazilian striker, Luis Fabiano, of Sevilla have fans in Cuba. The national television commentator, Reinier Gonzalez, the person most familiar with football on the island, supports Valencia, along with “The Kid”, David Villa.
There are numerous fan clubs for Real Madrid and Barcelona in the capital and the provinces. Biting their nails, they anticipate the phenomenal duel between the two Iberian football teams, on 10 April, in Chamartin stadium, which, by any reckoning, will define the league.
Nor are we forgetting the fans of the Italian Serie A, the French league, the English Premiership, or the German Bundesliga. Before the fever for illegal cable antennas, fans followed their clubs on short-wave radios.
The programme Tablero Deportivo, of Spanish National Radio, has thousands of listeners. Cubans are among those that send the most emails and letters from Latin America for the attention of the legendary Chema Abad.
Those who pay 10 Cuban convertible pesos ($8) per month to have satellite television coverage follow soccer on the American channel ESPN, which transmits all the details of the European, Mexican and South American leagues. There are incredible disputes at home when watching TV with women hooked on the soporific Aztec or Brazilian soap operas.
But even the official media, which do not deign to write a line about Major League Baseball or the basketball players of the NBA, have two football programs on national television. And all sports radio slots tend to announce the results of the European leagues.
But when it comes to betting on a team, as they approach the World Cup or European Championships, the weight of opinion is for the Argentines and the five-times Champions, Brazil, with its strong but magical touch.
However neither the DT Diego Armando Maradona with his poor results with the albiceleste (Argentine team colours), nor the Brazilian Dunga with his defensive strategies, in a team full of guys who have ‘goal’ in their blood, are viewed favorably by Cuban fans.
The Spanish team of mustachioed Vicente del Bosque is the third choice in Cuba to win the World Cup. Villa, Casillas, Xavi, Iniesta and “El niño” Torres are icons in the ‘green caiman of the Caribbean’.
Baseball is already playing its final phase. South Africa is in sight. And passionate football fans anxiously await the great event. They are feeling like orphans, because since 1938 a Cuban team has not qualified for the finals of a World Cup.
Tired of seeing a selection process in which some tough guys try to “play the violin,” and without outstanding results for a long time, people are ready to support European or South American teams.
But there are still three months until the start of the World Cup. Meanwhile, football lovers warm up with the long-awaited derby between the two great teams of Spain at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Already fans of Real Madrid suffered a considerable blow when they were beaten by Lyons in the Champions League. Now they hope to take revenge against Barcelona. That’s all they have left.
Translated by: CIMF