BY CRAIG STEPHEN

It’s November 2012, I’m walking around steaming Havana with my father, a Glaswegian called Bob, and his daughter, whom I had met the day before in our hotel. My Celtic top had attracted the attention of Bob and we made a vow to catch the Celtic vs. Barcelona Champions League match, even if it meant my dad and I would miss a bus to the city of Cienfuegos.

We found a bar one in the old quarter with few people inside, but the landlord was happy to show the game on TV.

Outside the bar, dozens of people peered in, unwilling to buy a drink but desperate for Barcelona to win. They mainly skulked away after Tony Watt scored the most important goal of his life for a famous, and somewhat unlikely, Celtic victory. Some come in, ask about our tops and congratulate us.

The band that had been performing before the match started up again, the pina coladas flowed, and from there on I can’t recall much. Scotland had beaten the Spanish giants, but this magical afternoon had dispelled some of the myths about Cuba; that the locals only liked baseball and had no interest in the real beautiful game.

Like most Latin countries the tops of Barcelona, Real Madrid and some of the Italian clubs are adorned by the young; almost certainly imitations.

None have the tops of local Cuban teams, nor even the national team. They likely do not even exist.

Football on the island has had a small revival, after decades of neglect.

Even the Americans have provided some assistance, though that may be temporary given last year’s presidential election result.

Near the end of his second term, Barack Obama initiated a smoothing of relations between the United States and Cuba as Washington began to realise that that awful socialist state on its doorsteps that treats its citizens so badly with one of the best education systems in the world, progressive rights for ethnic groups, the disabled and women, and supplies doctors to impoverished countries and disaster-hit zones, wasn’t going to go away.

So, in October last year the US travelled to Havana for a friendly, the first non-competitive match between the nations since 1947. They had played since, when FIFA forced them to play a World Cup qualifier in Havana in 2008; only five American supporters managed to get there, and not with official say-so.

As part of the thaw, Obama had issued an easing of travel and trade restrictions, so Americans are now allowed to travel to the island outside of special group tours if it’s for “cultural appreciation”. The US won 2-0 through goals by Chris Wondolowski and Julian Green.

These highly-paid stars, used to performing in the best stadia in the world, had a bit of a come-down when they took to the pitch at the Pedro Marrero Stadium in the capital, a decrepit structure without proper toilets or showers (after the game the Cuban players were seen hosing themselves down in an adjacent backyard; the Americans went back to their five-star hotel).

Now, with Trump’s head-in-the sand attitude and jingoistic policies taking hold, it’s hard to see whether another friendly will be arranged between these sides in the near future.

If the Americans can come then why not other top footballing nations, especially the Latin ones.

There is a change in the air.

Miami-based blogger and renowned expert on Cuban football, Mario Lara, says the sport is now followed more than baseball, and young people know more about football than the national sport.

He believes, however, that the Cuban government-controlled sports bodies are uninterested in promoting the sport, but that the growing popularity of football will force the blazers to change their ways.

“In my opinion, and also in the opinion of people who are involved in soccer inside and outside Cuba, we don’t understand why there’s this aversion toward soccer,” he says.

Osvaldo Alonso of the Seattle Sounders, who recently returned to Cuba for the first time since defecting a decade ago, says things are changing rapidly. “The kids are beginning to pay more attention to soccer. And that’s good for soccer on the island.”

That attention is partly because top-flight games from around the world are now widely available on Cuban TV.

Fields and vacant lots once filled with kids playing baseball are now rutted football pitches, and it is estimated that as many as 80 percent of children under the age of eight play football.

It’s largely forgotten how seriously football was taken up until the 1950s. Cuba, after all, has the distinction of being the first Caribbean team to compete in the World Cup.

It didn’t actually have to do anything to get to France in 1938: Colombia, Costa Rica, Dutch Guiana, El Salvador, Mexico, and the United States all withdrew, leaving Cuba as the last man standing.

In their opening match, Cuba held the fancied Romanians to a 3-3 draw after extra time. The José Tapia-coached side then defeated the Eastern Europeans in the replay, 2–1, Carlos Oliviera scoring the winner.

The effort of seeing off Romania took its toll; Cuba was subsequently eliminated in the quarter-finals by Sweden, 8–0. They haven’t been back since.

During the 40s and 50s, Cuban players regularly moved overseas. Eight Cubans were part of the famous Real Madrid side, while four players helped Real Espana to titles in Mexico. Clubs would go on tour, and Cuba hosted teams from overseas, both Real and Atletico Madrid coming over in the 50s. In the 1930s signs popped up all over Havana asking residents not to talk about football for fear of fights breaking out.

The sport’s demise pre-dated the revolution, with the domestic league suffering from various power struggles.

After the 1959 revolution, however, football became secondary. Fidel Castro was a huge baseball fan and the sport’s popularity on the island became part of the national psyche, and a means of showing what Cuba was made of. If Cuba could beat the Americans at baseball it showed the world that Cuba could excel in sport. Routes out of the country were closed off; anyone who left to pursue their career elsewhere was classified as a defector.

The Cuban national league, the Campeonato Nacional de Fútbol de Cuba, was created in 1912. The inaugural winners were Rovers Athletic, which had been formed by British and Irish residents three years earlier.

The top league contains 16 teams, which are divided up into groups of four, with each group winner advancing to the later stages of what becomes a knockout tournament.

One small town, Zulueta, possesses the country’s most successful club, FC Villa Clara, which boasts 13 league title wins since 1980.

According to Mario Lara the teams in the national league often have to wear the tops of Real Madrid or national teams, such as France, making it seem more of an impromptu kick-around by grown men than matches involving the game’s top players.

Cuba’s international adventure began on 16 March 1930 at the Central American and Caribbean Games, beating Jamaica 3–1 in Havana. Two wins over Honduras and defeat to Costa Rica followed and a 5-2 win over El Salvador secured the gold medal.

But the first crack at the World Cup, in 1934, resulted in failure, with Mexico overcoming them over three games.

After 1938, Cuba failed to get anywhere near the finals, nor, at times, to take the World Cup seriously. They finished third in a three-team qualifying group for the 1950 tournament behind the region’s two giants, the United States and Mexico, and didn’t enter again until the 1966 campaign.

Until 1998 they either failed to qualify, or more commonly, were not even on the starting blocks.

The best effort was in 1982 when they reached the final round of qualifying, and were only two points short of reaching Spain. The most productive recent campaign was in the 2006 qualifiers when they only lost out on away goals to Costa Rica after the two-legged tie ended up 3-3 on aggregate.

Other tournaments have been more favourable. Cuba reached the quarter-finals of the 2003 Gold Cup, defeating Canada 2–0 on the way, and were third in the Caribbean Cup of 2010.

Cuba has a fine record in that tournament, winning it in 2012 in Antigua, by defeating Haiti 1-0 in the semi-final and Trinidad and Tobago by the same score in the final. They have also finished second on three occasions.

At some of those tournaments players have defected. Not necessarily for the riches available in Europe, but just to get a chance to earn a decent amount of money and to reach their potential.

Alberto Delgado and Rey Martinez left during the 2002 Gold Cup and both went on to play in MLS. Osvaldo Alonso and forward Lestor More walked away during the 2007 Gold Cup.

Another to leave was Ariel Martinez, who appeared in multiple Gold Cups. In the 2015 tournament, he helped Cuba to a 1-0 win over Guatemala, but afterwards he walked out, and gained a contract with Miami FC.

But over the past two years a fundamental change has occurred.

In January 2016, Maykel Reyes and Abel Martínez became the first Cubans to sign for a foreign club with the approval of the Cuban government. Both players signed for Mexican side Cruz Azul.

Later that year, defender Jorge Luis Corrales followed, signing with Miami FC of the second-tier North American Soccer League. This follows a trend set in baseball of allowing players to leave on good terms.

Surely it may not be too long before Europe sees the first real Cuban star playing in a top-class league for the first time in decades.

FOLLOW CRAIG ON TWITTER @Porkysprimecuts

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