Cuban revolution: Cuba embraces pro soccer after years out in the cold

The obscurity of Mexican football’s third division is not exactly the place to start a revolution but Cuban football fans are hoping one began there on Saturday.

When Cuban international Maykel Reyes played the second half for Cruz Azul Premier that day, he made history.

In front of 300 fans in the city of Texcoco, the 22-year-old became the first Cuban professional in more than half a century to play football with the backing of his government.

Since the concept of signing a professional sports contract was outlawed by Fidel Castro’s communist regime in 1961, Cuban footballers who have played professionally have done so without the blessing of the country’s football association.

“It is historic because of the motivational boost it will give to new generations of Cuban players,” Mario Lara, a Cuban football historian, told CNN.

“They won’t see the possibility of fulfilling their dreams of playing professionally as so remote.”

In years gone by, those Cubans who have yearned to make it as top-level footballers have resorted to all kinds of measures to escape the amateur league back home.

Since 1999, no fewer than 30 players have defected to the United States during away trips to North America on national team duty, from taking flight via the hotel fire escape to sneaking away on a pre-game shopping trip.

All took advantage of former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy whereby any Cuban to set foot on American soil would be given asylum.

Among them were Osvaldo Alonso who plays for the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer (MLS) and Yordany Álvarez, who played for Real Salt Lake in the same league.

Two years after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Castro outlawed professional sport.

Moving the goalposts

But in 2013, things began to change.

The problem was that Cuba’s national side refuses to field those players who have defected.

However, a team currently lying 139th in the FIFA rankings needs to expose its players to foreign leagues to improve.

So as part of the Caribbean island’s increasing westernization, regulations were changed three years ago to allow locals to sign professional sports contracts overseas — just so long as taxes were paid back to the Cuban government on any income.

Nevertheless, the deal seemed too good to be true, which partly explains why no player had taken advantage of the amendment until now.

During the last transfer window, the capture of two reserve team players by Mexican top-flight club Cruz Azul hardly raised an eyebrow amidst the plethora of big-money signings elsewhere.

Yet the signing of Reyes and his compatriot, Abel Martínez, also 22, were among January’s most significant.

Not only were they the first Cubans to sign fully professional sports contracts, but they did so with their nation’s communist authorities fully behind them.

Martha Lidia Ruiz, the Director of International Relations at Cuba’s government-backed National Institute of Sport and Recreation (INDER), described the deal as “an opening of a door to the world.”

Luis Hernandez, president of the Cuban Soccer Federation, was quoted by Cuban state newspaper Granma as calling the contracts “historical” and hailing the fact that the pair were “playing on a team as prestigious as Cruz Azul.”

Nonetheless, both players still faced difficulties in obtaining work visas and had to return to Cuba in order to process the lengthy applications.

The situation was made more complicated by the fact that Reyes found himself on INDER’s list of indispensable sportspeople, which is designed to impede the departure of the nation’s best players.

Eventually, after several weeks of delay, the pair obtained the necessary visas and returned to Mexico, where they would be eligible to play for their respective reserve teams, both of which play in Mexico’s three-group third division.

Martínez has been included in the squad of Cruz Azul Hidalgo, which plays in Group 2, while Reyes has been added to the roster of Group 3 team Cruz Azul Premier.

Although Martínez did not get any minutes in Hidalgo’s match on Sunday, his colleague Reyes played the final 35 minutes of Cruz Azul Premier’s 2-0 defeat against Atlético Veracruz at Texcoco’s Claudio Suárez Stadium the day before.

Long time coming

Even before the unforeseen difficulties with the players’ visas, this moment had been a long time in the making.

Cesar Varela, a legal representative of Cruz Azul, acknowledged that his club had been pursuing the two Cuban players ever since the law changed in 2013.

It was at that year’s Under-20 World Cup in Turkey the duo first caught the attention of the club.

Although Cuba finished bottom of their group, they had exceeded expectations to qualify in the first place and it was Reyes, a centre forward, who scored the country’s only goal at the finals in a 2-1 loss to South Korea.

Cruz Azul began to monitor Reyes and midfielder Martínez, scouting the pair during Cuba’s friendlies against the New York Cosmos last June and against fellow Mexican side Santos Laguna four months ago.

It was actually Santos Laguna that first approached the Cuban Soccer Federation about the possible transfer of players, organizing the November friendly in order to strike up a relationship.

Various players have trained with Santos Laguna since then, but Cruz Azul are the first club to agree permanent playing contracts with any of the Cubans.

And now, both Reyes and Martínez can expect a significant pay rise.

Most Cuban footballers receive a monthly wage of around $20 from the government, according to The New York Times.

While the exact figures are not known, the average player in the Mexican second division receives around 6,000 Mexican pesos ($325) per month.

Cesar Varela of Cruz Azul has told The Havana Times newspaper: “They’re going to have the best salaries of the entire division and will live in a house owned by Cruz Azul, where they will share a room.”

A shining light

The hope is that more Cubans will follow the pair’s pioneering steps, which could prove the catalyst for much-needed improvement in the national team.

Cuba, with a population of 11 million, was knocked out of the 2018 World Cup last year by Curacao, which has a population of just 150,000, while the team missed out on Copa America qualification last month when losing its play-off with Panama 4-0.

Both Reyes and Martínez featured in that loss, and both are hoping Cuban football will improve with this new era of professionalism.

“We hope to do all we can to win [with Cruz Azul], to improve our own level and the level of Cuban soccer in general,” Martínez told The Havana Times.

So if more players follow Reyes and Martínez by signing professional contracts abroad and improve their skills, there is no reason why Cuba cannot one day become a bona fide World Cup team like the U.S. or Mexico.

After all, as demonstrated by the fact Cuba has won 11 Pan-American Games gold medals in baseball since the Cuban Revolution and 67 Olympic medals in boxing, the athletic talent is there.

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