Way back at France 1938, a Cuba squad spearheaded by the likes of Juan Romperredes Tunas and Hector Socorro took part in the nation’s first and to date only appearance at the finals of a FIFA World Cup™. Nor did the islanders just make up the numbers, managing a historic first-round victory over Romania to progress into the last eight, where Sweden put an end to their Gallic adventure.
Though the Caribbean nation have been unable to revive these former glories in the time since, and even faded as a force on the CONCACAF scene, Cuban football fans are daring to dream once more. Their national side have gradually been working their way back into contention and now, ahead of their opening Round 3 fixtures in North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying for Brazil 2014, have genuine aspirations of claiming a berth in the six-team final ‘Hexagonal’ phase.
A testing tour
With that aim in mind, coach Alexander Gonzalez’s charges were taken for a preparatory tour in the very country that will host the showpiece finals come 2014. Gonzalez, who has only been in the job for two months, felt that the best way to ready his squad for the challenges ahead was to play friendly encounters against a variety of Brazilian outfits. But would the trip boost the optimistic mood around the island concerning Cuba’s FIFA World Cup qualifying prospects?
Kicking off against the U-20 side of Brazilian champions Corinthians, the Cubans dominated the match only to waste a host of goalscoring chances, including a penalty early in the second period. They therefore had to content themselves with a 1-1 draw, secured via a strike from forward Ariel Martinez.
I think that Honduras are favourites but we're capable of competing for the second available spot.
Their second game of the tour, this time against second-division side Sao Bento, followed a similar pattern, with plenty of possession and several missed opportunities leading to a goalless draw. Unfortunately for the islanders, their third and fourth games – against Mogi Mirim and Fortaleza – both ended in defeat. Nevertheless, Cuba can take positives from the encouraging displays, particularly against the latter side, of Martinez, who was his team's outstanding performer throughout the tour.
To bring their Brazilian adventure to a close, Cuba recovered some pride by picking up a solid 1-1 draw with Paulista, from Jundiai in Sao Paulo state. Grabbing the islanders’ goal was Gallego Aira while keeper Odisnel Cooper, known as El Santo (The Saint) for his extraordinary shot-stopping, put in a showing worthy of his nickname.
Hopes not dented
Despite these less-than-inspiring results, morale in the Cuban camp remains buoyant. Indeed, coach Gonzalez was keen to put the friendlies in perspective and gave an upbeat analysis of the tour. “They were very tough encounters,” said the strategist. “Our aim was to prepare [for the upcoming Brazil 2014 qualifiers] in the best possible fashion and I think we managed that. Now we’re just waiting for the really important games to start.”
The young supremo went on to give his verdict on his side's qualifying group, which also contains Honduras, Panama and Canada, and stated that the Cuban supporters could have a key role to play. “We’re going to have to fight really hard and win our home games,” he said. “I think that Honduras are favourites but we're capable of competing for the second available spot [in the next round]. We’re in optimistic mood.”
In addition, Gonzalez mentioned the limitations faced by the beautiful game on the island, as well as the extra efforts required by his players to compete on an equal footing: “We’ve got a young side and it’s not easy because there isn’t professional football on Cuba. That’s why this kind of preparatory games are very useful. The days we spent in Brazil have been very profitable.”
So, with high hopes but their feet firmly on the ground, Cuba await their opening group clash against a strong Canada side on 8 June. And given the match will be played at the Cubans’ fortress-like Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana, the visiting Canucks can be sure of one thing: they are in for an uncomfortable time.