Rum, cigars, sunshine and palm trees all spring to mind when you think of Cuba, but the Caribbean island state of 11 million people is also known and admired around the globe as a nation of passionate athletes and sports enthusiasts. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Cuba came third behind the Bahamas and Australia in a ranking of medals won in proportion to population. Boxing and baseball are the favourite organised sports, but football is steadily and inexorably winning a place in Cuban hearts.
Exactly 70 years have passed since the Leones del Caribe made their solitary appearance at a FIFA World Cup™ finals. The Cubans exited the 1938 tournament in France after a humbling 8-0 quarter-final defeat to Sweden, but a sense of pride at having contested the global showcase event still pervades the cafes and clubs of Havana. Now, a European has risen to the challenge of providing the Lions of the Caribbean with nourishment to satiate their footballing hunger. "I want Cuba to realise a dream by appearing at the World Cup," German coach Reinhold Fanz, recently appointed to the Cuban helm, told FIFA.com.
Sights set on Antigua and Barbuda
The 54-year-old is aware of the responsibility attached to his new job. In his home country, Fanz is not especially known as a star coach with a roomful of trophies to show for his efforts, but rather as a meticulous professional with deep reserves of expertise.
The Mannheim native, who briefly took the hot seat at Bundesliga outfit Eintracht Frankfurt, boasts unrivalled experience in creating administrative structures, and has ushered a host of talented youngsters through to the professional ranks as a behind-the-scenes operator at a number of Germany's biggest clubs. "What I want to achieve in Cuba is to help the players develop technically, tactically and physically. They have huge potential, and there's quality here too," reports Fanz, a man clearly determined to turn words into deeds. "The job here in Cuba is definitely the most interesting of my coaching career so far."
Fanz has been handed a single, clearly defined goal: to crown Cuba's steady and much lauded progress in recent years by claiming a berth at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The Cubans embark on their challenging quest in mid-June with home and away matches against underdogs Antigua and Barbuda. "I've had a look at them and they're technically well-equipped, but I reckon we'll come out on top," Fanz confidently predicts. The evidence speaks in his favour: his men turned in a glittering display at the CONCACAF Gold Cup 2007, and came within a whisker of a major upset in a narrow 2-1 reverse against regional superpowers Mexico.
Should they overcome Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba would need to finish at least second in a group of four to go further than they ever have before, joining the six best CONCACAF nations in the final qualifying phase. "Obviously, Mexico and the USA are favourites, but there's a second tier behind them comprising the likes of Haiti, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, Honduras and Panama, all with hopes of making it to South Africa. We're on our way to joining this second group," the German coach comments.
'Tough but achievable'
But how realistic is it to expect Cuban dreams to come true in little over two years from now? "Everything's realistic in football. Qualifying will be tough but achievable," said the coach, whose team currently lie 110th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Fanz is hoping German virtues will unlock the door to Africa. "I'm just back from Havana, where we spent four weeks training intensively three times a day. Some of the players had trouble coping with a European pre-season programme. But they're thrilled, because they feel fitter, they're concentrating harder, and they've improved in terms of quality. And we still have a training camp in Austria ahead of us."
The new regime is clearly having an early impact, as the fresh face at the helm steadfastly pursues his chosen course. Nor is the coach allowing himself to be rattled by setbacks and distractions, including recent events in Tampa, Florida, where seven of the Cuban U-23 squad defected during a qualifying tournament for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "It didn't come as a shock to me at all, and I'm not wasting any thoughts over it," was his reaction. "I actually think my players have noticed that the association is serious about South Africa 2010. Everything that can be done is being done. A lot of things are changing in Cuba at the moment."
Certainly, the way things are going, rum, cigars, sunshine, palm trees, boxing and baseball could soon be joined by football on the list of instant associations with Cuba. The Leones del Caribe are hungry and on the prowl.