Thursday, June 28, 2012

Euro 2012 football fever hits baseball-loving Cuba

Euro 2012 football fever hits baseball-loving Cuba
Sarah Rainsford By Sarah Rainsford BBC News, Havana
28 June 2012 Last updated at 08:13 GMT

Baseball is Cuba's national sport. But a new craze is sweeping this
island: football.

You are as likely to see a young Cuban in a replica football shirt as in
a baseball top these days. Street kickabouts have become as common as
children playing with a bat and ball.

"Support for football has grown a lot among young Cubans in recent
years," says student Manuel Alejandro as he takes a break from his own
game with friends on the Havana seafront.

"It's a football revolution," he adds. "There are more fans here every day."

This month, that is clearer than ever. Euro 2012 has had people glued to
their TV sets across the island.

"We're not just following the championship, it has paralysed Cuba. All
young Cubans are watching and they know every detail," says Carlos Mendez.

The taxi driver is head of Cuba's very own fan club for Spanish club
Barcelona's star striker, Lionel Messi. His Havana home is plastered
with pictures of the player.

It is illegal to have satellite TV at home here, but state TV is
carrying the championship live and it is on screens in bars, homes, even

"Since they started showing football on TV here, support for the game
has been growing. Now it is a passion," Carlos says.
Canada's De Rosario, left, and Cuba's Alianni Urgelles in a World Cup
qualifier on 8 June in Havana Cuba's national side (here in white)
currently ranks 145th out of 206

Baseball is on TV every day during the National Series. But it was not
until 1998 that a football World Cup was screened live.

Now El Clasico - the Real Madrid-Barcelona clash in Spain - is shown
live too, and one European league game is chosen for rebroadcast every week.

"If you can't see the game, you don't know if you like it!" explains
Rafael Hernandez, another Messi - and Barcelona - fan.

"But now lots of people are switching from baseball to football," he says.

There are still problems: if state TV is not showing a "Barca"
(Barcelona) match, he has to run around Havana's hotels trying to catch
it on satellite. But at least he can now get in. Cubans were not allowed
to enter hotels until 2008.

While passion for international football is mounting, the domestic game
lags far behind.

Football enthusiasts know very little about Cuban league teams.
Travelling between provinces to matches costs money and is complicated.
There is little media coverage, and even the Cup final is not televised.

"I watch every Barcelona match, but I've never been to see Havana play,"
admits Carlos Mendez, and his Messi fan club friends all agree.

"I just don't follow them. It's not the same quality."
Poor facilities

Havana's main football stadium is a neglected, sorry-looking place, its
facade faded and its rough pitch covered in long grass better suited to
Sunday league football than international fixtures.

Cuba has not made it to a World Cup since 1938.

Still, when the national side took on Canada in a recent World Cup
qualifier to try to change that, a few thousand hopeful fans turned out,
faces painted, flags and hooters in hand.

Despite the home advantage of a scorching hot, 2pm kick-off, they lost.

In the stands, fans complained that baseball is the favoured sport of
the revolution.

Fidel Castro is a big fan: he often used to pitch the ceremonial first
ball in tournaments.

"We have more success in baseball and boxing. I think our footballers
could to the same, they just need the opportunities," said Jose Gomez,
wrapped in a Barcelona flag.

"And if they can't play in foreign leagues, they will never get better,"
he added.

Professional football, like all sport, was abolished in Cuba with the

"Our pitches are bad, there are no good trainers. The team has to take
public transport while baseball players get cars," says another fan,
Yosef Borraya.

"If one day they start getting results they'll suddenly get everything
they need. But that's the wrong way round!" he complains.

Those in charge of the game here accept there are problems.

"Our football pitches and stadiums need improving for official
competitions. And we need to work from the bottom up with young
players," says Antonio Garces Segura, vice president of Cuba's Football

But he expects work on a new, Fifa-funded synthetic pitch to be approved

"If we don't get to this World Cup, there's 2018. We have to dream!"
'No football tradition'

Meantime, there is no denying Cuba's enduring passion for baseball.
Cuban children play baseball Baseball is still entrenched as Cuba's
national sport

Every day, a group of men lock horns in furious debate under the shade
of palm-trees in a central Havana square.

It looks like a fight from a distance, with voices raised and arms
waving wildly. But the men are discussing the latest game.

"There's no tradition of football here," one man explains, in a break in
the shouting match. "We've been playing baseball for generations."

They say the sport runs in their blood.

But what if a big ball game and El Clasico match were both scheduled for
the same day?

"People of my age would go to the baseball," says Gilberto, in his 60s.
"But the young would watch the football," he laughs.

It is a big swing in allegiance.

Cuba's national sport still gets most of the official attention and funding.

But when it comes to luring fans, football has emerged as a strong

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