Cuba savouring historic adventure
© AFP

Halfway through 2012, Cuba’s U-20 players got together to take their first steps on the country’s greatest footballing adventure of the past three decades. Dedication and sacrifice in daily training sessions over a lengthy preparatory period was rewarded by Cuba securing a place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup for the very first time.

Having put so much of themselves into getting to this competition, it was perhaps only natural that many of these gifted youngsters were unable to hold back the tears after Monday’s 3-0 defeat by Nigeria. Fortunately however, this sense of sadness was soon replaced by something more positive.

Of course, Cuba would have preferred to be in the shoes of neighbours El Salvador, who on Tuesday picked up their first victory at a FIFA tournament, but not even the looming shadow of an early exit from Turkey 2013 can prevent the team from celebrating the historic feat of being involved. “It’s hard to tell whether we’re sad or happy about these results,” said rangy midfielder Daniel Luis Saez, speaking to FIFA.com.

“What we do know is that, when we look back on this, we’re going to feel very proud of what we achieved. Just getting to a World Cup is hugely important feat, because Cuba had never taken part in anything of this magnitude. We know that this experience will help us [in the future]. It’s something very valuable.”

What's more, their Turkish mission could not have started any better, with Maykel Reyes finding the net after only seven minutes of Cuba’s opening game against Korea Republic. “So far this has been a lovely story for Cuban football,” said Reyes, whose strike made him his country’s first-ever scorer in this competition and the first Cuban to score in a FIFA tournament for over 30 years. “This goal will mean a lot to the country, to the people who are following our progress and to us, the players. We’ve made a lot of sacrifices to get here.”

And these sacrifices will need to continue, should Reyes and Co wish to keep their dream of turning professional alive. “We’re still amateurs and we’ve not got a professional league like in other countries,” he said.

“But we still managed to train together all this time, then we’d all go off and study too, as we knew we needed to take everything very seriously. That approach was important in uniting us all,” added the Physical Education student, who also thanked the fans in Mexico and Spain who got behind Cuba in their final warm-up matches before travelling to Turkey.

It was my mum who introduced me to football. She was a teacher and she really helped me learn a lot. I think that she’s proud of me now.
Daniel Luiz Saez

Their performance in successfully negotiating this year’s CONCACAF U-20 Championship showed that this crop of Cuban players have every right to dream of going far in the game. “Ever since we achieved that feat, people have started to see us differently,” said Reyes, on the aftermath of February/March’s fourth-place finish on Mexican soil.

“They now know who we are, they like us and are talking about us. That makes us really happy. It wasn’t long ago that you’d say it was difficult being a footballer in Cuba, but football is changing for young people in our country.”

A clear example of this change is Luis Saez, whose 1.94m frame could well have helped him follow the lead of Cuban volleyball idol Joel Despaigne, or any number of elite baseball players. “I always used to play baseball when I was little, but it was my mum who introduced me to football,” he said, on how he was won over by the beautiful game. “She was a teacher and she really helped me learn a lot. I think that she’s proud of me now.”

Even with no points in the bag and only one game left in Group B, against section leaders Portugal, no-one in the Cuban camp will admit to giving up hope of a place in the Round of 16 just yet. Even so, in the back of the players’ minds must be the realisation that their time in Turkey is likely coming to an end.

“When we go back home, first of all we’ll take some time off, because we’re pretty tired. We’ve been training very hard over the last few months,” said Luis Saez, on the squad’s post-FIFA U-20 World Cup plans. “But, not long after that we’ll be back together again, getting ready for the next Pan-American Championship. I’m certain we’ll be able to use the experience we’re gaining now in upcoming tournaments.”

And after so many great experiences as a group so far, the future looks bright for Raul Gonzalez’s ambitious young charges. “I think that everyone in the squad dreams of a career in football, and that’s my dream too,” said Reyes, as the conversation concluded. “I want to be a star one day, alongside all those other great players around the world.”