A home run for Cuban football

While the Caribbean island nation of Cuba is renowned for a great many things - vibrant beaches, music and baseball among them - the quality of its football doesn’t often warrant remark. However, when the Leones del Caribe hoisted their first Caribbean Cup aloft late last year in neighbouring Antigua and Barbuda they sparked hopes for a revival of footballing fortunes in the not-so-distant future. 

Jamaica’s appearance at the FIFA World Cup™ in France in 1998 captured the imagination of footie fans around the world, but it was not, as is often wrongly assumed, the first appearance by a Caribbean side on the game’s grandest stage. That honour goes to Cuba, a nation known more for its devotion to boxing and baseball than football. In May of 1938, an intrepid Cuban team, comprised of players who had never set foot outside of their beloved island, boarded a ship for France, and the third football world finals.

They were an invited team, and without having played a single qualifier, little was expected of the islanders. They beat Romania before losing out to Sweden 8-0 on a water-logged pitch. “We weren’t used to conditions like that and we kept slipping over,” the 1938 team’s top-scorer, Juan Tunas, told FIFA.com in a 2010 interview. The striker, who was the last surviving member of that groundbreaking side, died in 2011 at the age of 98, thus bringing down the curtain on the most famous moment in Cuban football history.

The intervening 75 years have been far more bust than boom for Cuba. The club system has remained largely amateur under the Socialist regime that came to power in 1959, affording promising young players no opportunity to hone their skills abroad. The national team failed to make any headway in FIFA World Cup qualifying, and in the most recent preliminary campaign, for Brazil 2014, they were bumped at the semi-final hurdle, failing to win any of their six games. They finished dead last in their section, scoring only one goal and conceding ten.

On three occasions, in 1996, 1999 and 2005, Cuba finished runners-up in the CFU Caribbean Cup. Until very recently, this was the sum total of the country's football success on the international scene.

A crown for Cuba
Until, that is, the Leones roared at the 2012 Caribbean finals in the Antiguan capital of St John’s. Coached by new boss Walter Benitez, who took over the side that failed to shine in 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying, Cuba started poorly, losing their first game to Martinique on 8 December. They rebounded, though, with a 2-1 win over French Guyana and a shock 1-0 win over Jamaica, widely considered the best Caribbean side at present and five-time Caribbean champions. Led by the panache of Ariel Martinez, who scored three goals in the tournament, the Cubans went on to beat 2007 champions Haiti 1-0 after extra time in the semi-final.

They then took the laurels with the same result, also in extra time, against 2006 FIFA World Cup participants Trinidad and Tobago, who’ve won the Caribbean Cup no fewer than eight times. “Our style of playing is a kind of flowing, fast-moving football, where we create chances for our strikers and trust each other totally,” said Cuban coach Benitez, who must be applauded for turning the side around so completely in such short order.

The result is a milestone and it sends Cuba rocketing up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, climbing a worldwide-best twelve places in the global pecking order, up to 88th in the January release. The boost also puts them 11th in the CONCACAF zone, still a way off the pace set by near neighbours USA, Costa Rica and Mexico, but much improved.

In addition to bragging rights and a bump up the rankings, the title they picked up in St John’s sees Cuba through to the CONCACAF Gold Cup (the region’s biannual cup of nations) later this year in the USA. The Cubans’ best Gold Cup finish to date at came back in 2003, when they overachieved to reach the quarter-finals.

As surprise champions of the Caribbean, Cuba will head into these regional finals in July with, for once, a sense of legitimate confidence and hope of hitting the headlines for all the right reasons. “We are moving ahead in our football and we must keep up this progress,” said coach Benitez, who believes there are big things to come for the rising islanders.