Soccer

Soccer's popularity continues to rise in Cuba

Several dozen people gather under a punishing December sun outside the weathered baseball stadium in this port city 60 miles east of Havana, pushing and shoving in the hope of glimpsing the eight major leaguers who have come for a children's clinic.

Matanzas is the birthplace of Cuban baseball, site of the first game played in the Caribbean and home to many of the country's greatest players. But proof that the sport might be fading on the island was evident in the crowd of curiosity-seekers, some of whom dressed not in baseball jerseys but in the shirts of Spanish soccer clubs Real Madrid and Barcelona.

"Things have changed a lot," said Seattle Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who recently returned to Cuba for the first time since defecting during the 2007 Gold Cup. "The kids are beginning to pay more attention to soccer. And that's good for soccer on the island."

It also parallels the experience in places such as Puerto Rico, where volleyball and basketball have replaced baseball as the national pastime.

In Cuba, many blame the change on the decline of the country's domestic baseball league, which has lost dozens of top players to the U.S. over the last decade. State-controlled television has hardly filled the appetite for good baseball, allowing the broadcast of only one major league game a week, on a tape-delayed basis each Sunday night.

At the same time, top-flight soccer games from the around the world have become widely available on Cuban TV. And that has grabbed the imagination of young people.

The transformation is difficult to miss. Fields and vacant lots once filled with kids playing baseball are now rutted soccer fields, while on the streets and wide boulevards of Havana, as in Matanzas, soccer jerseys are more common than the traditional cotton guayabera.

Not everyone welcomes the change.

Shortly after Elias Valor's first grandson was born, he bought a tennis ball and small plastic bat and began pitching to Felix "to give him the passion for baseball."

"After six years I haven't achieved my goal," he lamented as he watched the crowd in Matanzas. "[But] the guy sees a soccer ball and gets crazy about it."

Felix now plays soccer regularly, something Valor, a 59-year-old tour guide from Guanabo, says is common for as many as 80% of Cubans under the age of 8.

"It's a fast game," Valor said. "When I asked him why he doesn't play baseball he says, 'Oh, you have to wait too much. I want action.'"

Valor said soccer remains largely a children's sport in Cuba, but the newfound passion for the game has had a trickle-up effect. The national team, long a regional doormat, made it to the quarterfinals of the last two CONCACAF Gold Cups and won the Caribbean Cup for the first time in 2012. (Compare that with the island's national baseball team, which hasn't won a major world or Pan American title since 2007.)

And that success has caught the attention of the rest of the world.

In January, forward Maikel Reyes and midfielder Abel Martinez signed with Mexico's Cruz Azul, becoming the first Cubans to join a professional club with the approval of the government. Last month defender Jorge Luis Corrales followed, signing with Miami FC of the second-tier North American Soccer League.

"This isn't just about earning spots on the team," Rene Perez, head of the island's soccer federation, told a Cuban news agency. "The most important thing is playing internationally in order to raise the level of each athlete."

Maybe. But a clear benefit is lessening the pressure on players to leave the country to play professionally.

Cuban soccer has also been hurt by defections, with at least 29 players following the lead of former Chivas USA forward Maykel Galindo, who abandoned the national team during the 2005 Gold Cup. The largest exodus came during a four-month stretch last summer and fall when at least nine players escaped during a pair of tournaments in the U.S.

So, like Cuban baseball, which is working with U.S. officials to allow players to sign directly with major league teams while retaining Cuban citizenship, soccer authorities are exploring ways to let players become professionals abroad and represent Cuba internationally.

Alonso's trip home last December was a big step in that effort. Since walking away from the national team during a shopping trip to a Houston-area Wal-Mart in 2007, Alonso was able to marry, have three kids and become a U.S. citizen.

What he wasn't able to do was see his father or return home without risking arrest. As relations between Cuba and the U.S. improved, however, Cuba gave Alonso's father, a former soccer player, permission to travel to Seattle last September to see his son play for the first time as a professional in a game with the Galaxy.

Three months later, Alonso was allowed to return to Cuba legally. During his trip to Pinar del Rio, on the western tip of the island, Alonso was embraced like baseball players used to be welcomed.

"In my neighborhood, many people know me," Alonso, speaking in Spanish, said of his hometown, another baseball hotbed making the transition to soccer.

"Soccer is growing. Kids are now playing in the streets," he said. "Little by little, soccer is getting better in Cuba. And we hope it will keep getting better in the future."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter 11

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 13, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "A growing fan base - Soccer's popularity is on the rise in Cuba as baseball slides into the background." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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