Sometime in the next ten days, a pillar of the Cuban national team will walk off the pitch one last time.
Veteran goalkeeper Odelin Molina doesn't know if it will be in the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup against Panama in Atlanta on Saturday, later in the last-four, or even in the final in Chicago on 28 July. But whenever it is, Molina, who turns 39 this August, will hang up his gloves when the final whistle blows.
When the veteran goalkeeper spoke about his impending retirement earlier this week, a tear fell down the side of his face. “It will be very sad for me,” he told FIFA.com. “The hope is to qualify for the next round. I know personally I gave it my all, as well as my team-mates on the field.”
“It’s hard. It hurts me, retiring,” the lanky net-minder went on. “It’s a very hard time for me.”
Those outside the CONCACAF zone may not have heard much about Molina, because he doesn't play for a traditional footballing nation or one that typically goes very deep in FIFA World Cup™ qualifying. Rather, Cuba is better known for its baseball and boxing.
He’s a great player, a great athlete, one who has supported us on the playing pitch.
Molina's career has spanned eras and he has been a regular since he donned Cuba's colours for the first time with the senior team in May 1996 in a 1-0 FIFA World Cup qualifying win over Cayman Islands. His international career includes 25 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and 14 Gold Cup matches over six competitions, which stands as a record. Over the course of his long career, he has served under seven coaches.
His proudest Gold Cup moments came more than a decade ago. At the age of 27 in 2002, Molina stood on his head to keep Cuba within striking distance of USA and Korea Republic, holding the Americans to a 1-0 result on their own soil, and inspiring a goalless draw with the Asian giants. A year later, he kept a clean sheet in an historic 2-0 victory over Canada.
That turned out to be the last shutout and win that Molina recorded in the Gold Cup before Cuba blanked Belize 4-0 earlier this week to book a place in the knockout rounds.
“He’s a great player, a great athlete, one who has supported us on the playing pitch,” Cuban forward Jose Ciprian said. “He’s helped everybody individually.”
Defender and captain Jorge Luis Clavelo also appreciates what the veteran keeper has brought to the team. “I feel very confident to have him on the backline with us,” he said. “We feel that he gives us a security that’s always there. In terms of his impending retirement, it’s obviously very sad, but it’s something we welcome. He’s a key to Cuban soccer going forward.”
Molina wants to move into coaching when he retires, with his ultimate goal to take charge of his beloved Cuban national side. “To play football or to work in football is the only thing I know in life,” he said. “After my retirement, my dream is to become coach of the national team, not goalkeeping coach, but the head coach of the national selection. It’s my dream.”
Molina said that he has learned a tremendous amount about the game, with virtually all of the action happening in front of him. “Being behind the pitch, behind the players in goal, has prepared me to be a coach,” he said. “In my position I can see the pitch and order the players. Playing many years as a goalkeeper has prepared me to be a good coach.”
There should be very little problem with the transition to the sidelines, Cuba coach Walter Benitez said. “I feel he’s very strong,” he said about Molina. “He’s given us an enormous amount of confidence backing us up … If he comes back as coach, or an assistant, he would be able to help us tremendously. We have two young keepers so I think he would be a tremendous help to the team."
Cuba certainly were an inspired side on Tuesday. Needing a four-goal victory to earn a place in the last eight, they did exactly that with their Group C victory in East Hartford.
“For me, it was like winning the World Cup,” said Cuban midfielder Ariel Martinez, who recorded his first international hat-trick in the game. “It was a great achievement for us and made me very happy.”
Jeniel Molina scored the crucial final goal two minutes into stoppage time as the entire Cuban bench raced onto the field to celebrate. “We believe that this was the best game in the history of the national team,” Benitez said. “We definitely felt very, very excited to get this result. We felt very proud of what we did. We embraced our Cuban jersey, our Cuban flag.”
Odelin Molina, so crucial to the Cuban cause, will aim to fly the flag and embrace the jersey once more with distinction on Saturday.