Cuba’s captain Yenier Marquez recently found himself between a pair of football legends. Before lining up for his national team in a friendly with the New York Cosmos in Havana, the veteran defender was seated right in between two men so famous they need only one name to announce them: Pele and Raul
"It's a great pleasure for me," he told FIFA.com later in the humidity of the Cuban capital. "I’m shaking hands with two big guys. As the captain of the Cuban team I feel incredibly good, not only in the sense of soccer, but for my life too. It's a very nice thing."
While not quite in the class of those two megastars, the 36-year-old Marquez has forged a reputation for himself with the Cuban national team. This is his 16th year wearing the colours of* Leones del Caribe*. And he’s been a part of Cuba’s footballing system – including the youth set-up – for a full two decades.
His resume is unmatched on the island. The current World Cup qualifying campaign, with Cuba taking aim at a place in Russia in 2018, is Marquez’s fifth consecutive qualifying appearance. He still remembers playing in his first, way back in the preliminaries for Korea/Japan 2002. When he lines up with the Lions next month in the United States, it will be the defender’s eighth straight appearance at a CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Marquez has 114 caps since making his national team debut in 2000, and has scored 13 goals for Cuba. He plays for the FC Villa Clara domestically, and doesn't have any intentions of hanging up his boots any time soon.
"Age considered, my body feels great," said Marquez, who looked solid and confident marshalling the rearguard in the recent 0-0 draw against Curacao in Russia 2018 qualifying. "As long as I feel as great mentally as I do now I really think I’ll continue to play for more years."
The day of the Clásico, Cuba is paralysed. I swear!
He also looked in great shape as the skipper of Cuba's 4-1 loss to the New York Cosmos, who play in the NASL which is considered America’s second tier of professional football. While the host Cubans were defeated, Marquez saw it as a perfect way to prepare for the road to Russia, which he and the rest of the Cubans are hoping is a long one.
"The timing was perfect," he said, adding that the Cubans treated the friendly against Raul and co "like our first qualifier." The actual first qualifier for the Cubans was a far more solid result, a goalless draw on the road against a Curacao side coached by former Barcelona and Netherlands star Patrick Kluivert. They return home for the second leg in Havana on Sunday.
Not many clubs from outside Cuba visit the Caribbean country, so the Cosmos visit was a treat. In fact, it was the first visit from a USA-based club since the long defunct Chicago Sting did so in 1978.
*Changing perceptions in Cuba
*Cosmos players hoped their visit would open the door for more American sides to visit and play in the Caribbean island, so long locked in a political and diplomatic stalemate with the US government. Marquez hopes it will create chances for more Cuban players to try their luck abroad, something that was unlikely for he and most of his teammates in years past.
"There are some expectations about that, some opportunities to play in other countries for us," Marquez said.
Cuba has a reputation as a baseball country, as it has sent many players to the major leagues in America. But since Marquez turned professional 20 years ago, football has made major inroads on the island. "It definitely is getting more popular," he said. "You see it with today’s children and soccer balls rolling everywhere in the streets. It’s something that can only be positive for us."
Walk along virtually any street here n Havana and you’ll find fans wearing the shirt of their favorite team. Not surprisingly, there's a connection with Real Madrid that goes back more than a century. Four Cubans, brothers Armando, Mario and Jose Giralt and Antonio Sanchez Neyra, played in the first Real Madrid team, formed in Spain in 1902.
"The day of the Clásico, Cuba is paralysed. I swear!" Marquez said with a laugh, remembering sitting up at the podium next to one of the club’s biggest stars, the gracious and aging Raul. "I myself am a Real Madrid fan, but I keep it very casual."