On 2nd June 2015, The American New York Cosmos football club played a friendly match against Cuba’s national team in Havana, thus becoming the first American football club to visit the island since the 1978 visit of the Chicago Sting.
But ultimately it wasn’t the match itself that created the most interest or eventually became the centre of attention. Most eyes were actually on the two football legends that had just arrived: Edson Arantes do Nascimento, more commonly known as Pelé, and Raúl González Blanco.
Pelé, the sole three-time World Cup winner, led the American delegation as ambassador of the Cosmos Club, where legendary Spanish striker, Raúl - Real Madrid’s top scorer ever - currently plays.
Looking beyond the match’s final score (a 4-1 win for the visiting team) the significance of the visit actually lied on the fact that it marked yet another step forward in the warming up of relations between two countries that had been at odds for over fifty years.
Where did Cosmos play in Cuba?
For a mere 2 CUC, foreign visitors could gain entry to the match held at Pedro Marrero Stadium, thus witnessing the historic meeting that saw Raúl playing it out for the full 90 minutes. Despite the fact that the match was a bit dampened by inconvenient rain, the stands were packed to the brim with Cuban and foreign football fans who weren’t going to let anything spoil this very special occasion.
The Pedro Marrero stadium is located on 41st Ave., in Havana’s municipality of Playa. The stadium is home to the local football club representing Havana, but it’s also the official home of Cuba’s national football team. Having been designed for multiple uses, this sports facility also includes an athletics track surrounding its natural grass football field, and its stands can hold 28 thousand spectators.
This stadium is one of the oldest in the Caribbean. It was built in 1929 and officially opened on 10th October 1930. Originally named Gran Estadio Cervecería Tropical (Tropical Brewery Grand Stadium), at the time of its opening it played host to many games in the Liga Cubana de Béisbol (Cuban Baseball League); the most popular sport in the island.
Other high-profile visitors
Prior to Cosmos’s visit to Havana this year, several other prominent football clubs had made it to the country. But the story of these events precedes the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and dates several decades back.
It all began in 1926. On the same year in which Cuba was admitted as a member of the International Association of Football Federations, better known worldwide by its acronym in French, FIFA; three notable football clubs visited the island. These were the Galicia Sporting Club; which comprised a group of Galician players residing in New York, the Chilean ColoColo club, and the Real Club Deportivo Espanyol from Barcelona, Spain, the latter of which had the unforgettable goalkeeper, Ricardo “El Divino” Zamora among its players.
Sometime later in 1927, the great Real Madrid club played in the Cuban capital while the Peruvian club, Alianza Lima, followed suit one year later, in 1928. Then in 1929, the Nacional Club from Montevideo, Uruguay arrived in Cuba, including among its players, several members of the Uruguayan national team who had previously won the gold medals in the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games.
The 1930s weren’t orphaned from illustrious sports personalities and football visitors either. The island’s fields also hosted the Argentinian Vélez Sarsfield Club, the Uruguayan Bella Vista Club (which had the star defense player José Nasazzi; captain of the Uruguayan World Championship Team at the time) and the Chilean club, Audaz Italiano.
The flow of visitors never really stopped from then on and at the same time, football was gaining more and more followers among Cuban sports fans. Eventually, it became customary to see big football clubs travelling to the island for training sessions.
Consequently, between 1952 and 1953, Cuba received the visit of Spanish clubs like Atlético de Madrid, Real Madrid and Sporting de Gijón.
It is true that after the 1960s the football furor in Cuba stalled, started to die out and almost began to disappear, but in more recent years it has started to gather more supporters than ever, especially among the newer generation who seem to favour it over the national sport – baseball.
So, while Pelé, Raúl and the Cosmos club’s recent visit cannot really be considered an unprecedented event, even though it was of course, a privilege bestowed on a nation in which day by day, more and more children play football on the streets; it certainly is a reflection of the changing times. Cuba is once again falling in love with football, this I can guarantee you, and I invite you to come and see it for yourself.