Cuban spirits are soaring after they demolished Antigua and Barbuda 8-3 on aggregate in the last round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. With a new coach in experienced German Reinhold Fanz, a crop of talented youngsters and an exhaustive training tour on the old continent, football fans on the baseball-obsessed island are expecting the best ahead of the kick-off of a challenging Group A.

Most football fans wouldn't remember Cuba's only appearance at a FIFA World Cup finals. Way back in 1938, 21 years before Fidel Castro's revolution, The Lions of the Caribbean (or Leones del Caribe) roared to the finals in France on the eve of the Second World War. They beat Romania to reach the quarter-finals of an abbreviated tournament, where they were summarily thrashed 8-0 by Sweden.

Modern problems
Back then, with many of her neighbours suffering through the Great Depression, the Cubans received a direct bye to the French finals. They will not be so fortunate this time out, having to navigate troubled waters and meet some of the region's top sides to reach South Africa. Even so, the Class of 38's great grandsons are looking an efficient outfit.

Coach Fanz, who took over the reins in January, thinks his lads can keep up the progress. "When I compare this team here in training camp in Germany with the one that beat Antigua in June, it couldn't be more different," the former Hannover 96 and Eintracht Frankfurt coach told in Hamburg, where Cuba lost 7-0 to the local second division outfit FC St. Pauli. "There has been a big improvement since then."

The team is comprised primarily of young players, with the vast majority aged 18 to 23. "We are a young team, it's true," added Fanz, who has been deprived of star player Lester More who defected to the USA to seek political asylum at last year's CONCACAF Gold Cup. A handful of U-23 players did the same during Olympic qualifying in March.

"We are playing at about 60 to 80 per cent of our potential at the moment," the coach added. "With time running out before our first group game, I am confident we can hit our peak."

Stronger than Asamoah
One fresh-faced star of the future that Fanz will be counting on is Roberto Linares. Scorer of three goals in the series with Antigua, the 22-year-old forward is looking like a potential match-winner for the Cubans.

A top performer for local club FC Villa Clara, Cuban champions in 2004, Linares is an attacking force brimming with power and pace and possessing a keen eye for goal. He's even forcing flattering comparisons. "He is proving to be a very impressive young striker," coach Fanz said. "I coached German international Gerald Asamoah at an early age at Hannover and the two have very similar qualities. At the same age, I think Roberto is the stronger of the two."

Linares links up well with elegant strike partner Leonel Duarte, a fellow Olympic team member, to make the team dangerous going forward. Even so, the coach expressed concerns that his side is "not clinical enough in front of goal" at present. Perhaps the boss is being a little too critical, as the Cubans have orchestrated an upward jump of 32 places (from 110 to 78) in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking during his six months in charge.

T&T await
Fanz knows the team's next test, on 20 August against Trinidad and Tobago, will be no easy task for his men. "Trinidad are a very strong team," says the coach, who will also face the USA and Guatemala in Group A. "They (T&T) are very technical and physically very strong. But with the right preparation and analysis of our opponent, who knows what can happen?"

Fanz will be hoping marksman Linares' youthful optimism is contagious in the locker-room. "Of course I think we can beat Trinidad and Tobago," the bulky striker concluded. "Why would we be so far from home and training so hard if we didn't?"