With the moving experience of their visit to Haiti still fresh in the memory, FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter and his delegation arrived in Cuba on Tuesday afternoon for leg three of their tour of Central America and the Caribbean.
The objectives of the visit were to pay tribute to Cuban football, which has been in existence now for over 100 years, and to assess the results of the projects that have been implemented on the island with FIFA’s support. Also on the agenda was a meeting with the President of Cuba Raul Castro.
A long and proud history
Although the Cuban Football Association (AFC) was founded in 1924 and did not become a member association of FIFA until 1929, the history of football on the island dates all the way back to 11 December 1911. It was on that day that Rovers Athletic Club beat Sport Club Hatuey 1-0 at the now-defunct Campo de Palatino, with Jack Orrs writing his name in the history of Cuban sport by scoring the game’s solitary goal.
Joined by CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb and FIFA Secretary General Jérôme Valcke, Blatter presented a commemorative plaque to AFC President Luis Hernandez at an official function attended by a number of dignitaries from Cuban sport, among them Jorge Polo Vazquez, the Vice-President of the National Institute of Sport (INDER).
As Blatter recalled, Cuba was a footballing pioneer in the region, becoming the first Caribbean nation to take part in the FIFA World Cup™ at France 1938, where a squad featuring famous names such as goalkeeper Benito Carvajales and centre-forward Juan Tunas, also known as “The Netbuster”, reached the quarter-finals after beating Romania in the first round.
The FIFA President also praised the current national team, which although eliminated from the qualifying competition for Brazil 2014, won the Caribbean Cup for the first time in its history at the end of last year. That landmark achievement also earned Cuba a place at the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the fourth time in the last five tournaments.
Education and development
The FIFA delegation continued with its busy schedule on Wednesday morning with a visit to the Palacio de la Revolucion, where Blatter was welcomed by INDER President Christian Jimenez Molina and the President of the Cuban Olympic Committee Jose Fernandez. Their conversation ranged over a number of topics, chief among them football, education and health.
“It is important and very pleasing to know that football is a compulsory part of the school curriculum at primary and secondary level,” said the FIFA President. “It is a sport that has many values, such as solidarity, teamwork, discipline, respect and fair play.”
The delegation’s next stop was the Estadio La Polar, where the island’s first artificial pitch will be installed, a project that will be implemented with the support of the Goal Programme. After meeting with a group of ex-footballers playing in a veterans league match at the stadium, all of them over the age of 63, Blatter said: “You are the best example there is for young people. You show them that sport brings people together and also helps you stay fit and healthy.”
From there it was on to the Mario Lopez National Football Academy, which was also built with the support of the Goal Programme. Named in honour of the greatest Cuban footballer of all time, the academy is a study and training centre for Cuban youngsters, who are only allowed to play football if they pass their exams. Blatter looked on as Cuba’s U-20 side, which will be making its first ever appearance at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey later this year, was put through its paces in a training session.
Blatter later gave a press conference at which he discussed a number of national and international topics. Voicing his praise for Cuban football, he said: “Cuba is an example for many national associations to follow, especially when it comes to the relationship between the association and government, whose support is essential in providing funding for the coaches and staff who look after the national teams.”
Hernandez said that he was “very grateful” that the president of “the world’s most popular sport” had chosen to visit them, adding: “FIFA’s support is very important to Cuban football because it allows us to press on with our development programmes, particularly at youth level and in women’s football.”
Blatter’s first visit to Cuba in 12 years ended with a meeting with Raul Castro, which was also attended by Webb and Valcke. “We enjoyed an excellent conversation about football in Cuba. He thanked us for FIFA’s support and we gave him our thanks for his support of Cuban football,” said Blatter before heading to Panama for the final leg of his tour of the region.