The Cuban National Assembly recently approved a package of reforms to reshape emigration and economic policies. A million government workers will be laid off, while average Cubans will now have the chance to start and operate their own small businesses. In addition, the government will initiate an overhaul of the restrictions on travel off of the island. Raul Castro has said that he wants to modernize the country and establish ties to Cuban communities living elsewhere. All of this is good, but what does it have to do with soccer?
The Cuba National Football Team recently played in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. They had qualified for the tournament by virtue of their performance in the 2010 Caribbean Championships, in which they took third place. Cuba failed to get a result against El Salvador, Costa Rica, or giants Mexico and only managed to score one goal in the process.
You’ll be forgiven if you don’t remember a single Cuban player from the tournament. That’s because every player on the team plays domestically in Cuba. The most talented Cuban players, Osvaldo Alonso and Maykel Galindo, both defected from Cuba during previous installments of the Gold Cup and are now playing in MLS. A number of other players have stayed in the United States, like Yordany Alvarez, Yendry Diaz, Reinier Alcantara and Pedro Faife who are all playing professionally in Florida.
There are 16 professional teams on the island nation of Cuba. Starting in the 2011 season, these 16 clubs are split into two leagues of 8 teams each. The top league is the Campeonato Nacional de Futbol de Cuba, the Cuban National Football Championship and the second-tier league is called the Torneo de Ascenso, or Promotion Tournament. Like every other Caribbean league, Cuba has the opportunity to send teams to the annual Caribbean Football Union Club Championship, but has only accepted the invitation once in 2007. Every team in Cuban consists solely of Cuban players and Cubans are not welcome to leave to the island.
Opening up Cuba’s economy and emigration/immigration is a tremendous opportunity for soccer to flourish. Allowing Cubans to leave will let the best players escape the stagnant mediocrity of the Campeonato and improve their talents without having to defect. The current political climate means that Osvaldo Alonso, Maykel Galindo and others can not play for the national team. If Cuba’s shores open, then foreigners from other Caribbean nations can come to play in Cuba to bolster the ranks of Cuban clubs and produce more exciting play on the field.
The question of repatriation can be discussed, but I doubt that will happen. Because of the intense political conflict, returning to the Cuban National Team would be a highly personal decision for defected players. But even if those players don’t get called back into the fold, the players who are in the seleccion will improve their skills, making the team more competitive which helps everyone in the confederation.
Economic reform, loosening the cryptic communist holdovers, sets the stage for a boom in the popularity of soccer in Cuba. Legalization of entrepreneurial endeavors is an important step towards private ownership and independently operated football clubs that compete with each other in the open markets. This is in terms of player salary and transfer fees, but also in ticket prices and fan giveaways (the latter is huge in lower division soccer in America). Kick-starting the Cuban economy also presents to possibility for a rising middle class on the island. With the introduction of private enterprise, Cuba might begin producing surplus and exporting goods. This would drive the quality of living up and give average Cubans disposable income. A middle class with disposable income is the framework for soccer support worldwide, and Cuba would be no different.
These reforms have not yet been enacted, but the potential for the island nation of Cuba and the soccer therein is limitless. Raul Castro recently proclaimed in a nationally broadcast speech, “We take this step as a contribution to increase the nation’s ties to the community of emigrants, whose makeup has changed radically since the early decades of the revolution.” This community of emigrants is largely localized in Southern Florida and includes the defected Cuban players playing in Orlando, Tampa Bay, and especially Fort Lauderdale.