Though Cuba’s last appearance at a FIFA competition came at the 1991 FIFA U-17 World Cup, the young players preparing to compete at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 are determined to make up for lost time.
Fully focused on both present success and future growth, this crop of promising Cuban talents look well-placed to continue their country’s recent rise on the international stage.
Juggling feelings of pride at guiding Cuba into their first FIFA U-20 World Cup, and his hopes that a solid campaign could provide a further catalyst for his country’s football, coach Raul Gonzalez is preparing for his side's first challenge against Korea Republic on Friday in Kayseri. Given the stakes involved, everything surrounding the game and the tournament as a whole appears to have gained a much wider significance for the Cuban supremo.
“Qualifying for the U-20 World Cup for the first time represents a real step forward in our country’s football development,” he told FIFA.com. “We’ve got a very good generation of players who, in their first year together, pulled off a huge feat in sealing qualification. After that, who knows how far we can progress over the next two or three years? Why shouldn’t these players make it into the senior squad one day?”
Such statements say a lot about the current fortunes of the beautiful game in a country where, historically, it has been behind the likes of boxing, athletics, wrestling and of course baseball in the popularity stakes. Even in the tussle with the latter sport, the nation’s genuine main sporting love and a discipline that has earned the Caribbean island three Olympic gold medals, football seems to be gaining some ground.
“It’s a fact: our sport has won over the masses in Cuba. I can even go so far as to assure you that, right now, people like football more than baseball,” said Gonzalez. “We’d really love our opening game to be broadcast back home. Seeing their U-20 national team in a global competition would make everyone immensely proud.”
Short on pedigree, but not ambition
Grand plans and growing popularity are all well and good, but Gonzalez and his players know they have plenty still to prove. And though a lack of major competition experience must be considered a disadvantage against such seasoned nations as Group B rivals Portugal, Nigeria and Korea Republic, the Cubans will not go down without a fight.
“We’re here because we deserve to be: we weren’t given anything for free,” said the coach. “We’re a nation of battlers, so we won’t give up easily, even against countries that are used to being in these situations. Of course, it’d be going too far to say we’re among the favourites, but we won’t be easy to beat.”
Relaxed and good-natured throughout the interview, coach Gonzalez was also refreshingly upbeat about his side’s Turkish adventure and designs on future success. “We’ve got nothing to lose here, we’ve only got things to gain,” he said as the conversation concluded. “Every lesson we can learn will be very important for the future of Cuban football.”