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Futbol fever on baseball island

Cuba may be short on soccer talent, but not soccer mania.

Cuba soccer, Cuba sports
When polled about their favorite sport, these Cuban boys reported the following preferences: soccer (2), baseball (2), basketball (1). (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)

HAVANA, Cuba — Baseball is so supreme on this island that Cubans don’t even call the sport by its full name. They just say "pelota" — ball — as if it were the only spherical object worth bothering with.

But every four years, whenever the World Cup comes around, Cuba’s national pastime gets a break. City parks, empty lots and baseball diamonds are stretched into soccer fields. Kids ditch their bats and gloves and rummage up anything kickable they can find, building makeshift goals out of stones and tree branches.

Enthusiasm for the World Cup has converged this year on Havana’s largest movie theater, the 1,500-seat Cine Yara, which ordinarily screens the latest imports from Europe and Hollywood. The World Cup has converted it into a raucous big-screen sports bar, where Cubans cheer and scream in delirium for Brazil, Argentina and other countries where few have ever set foot.

“I wish it were like this here all the time,” said Alberto Rabelo, a 50-year-old Havana resident in a sky-blue Argentina jersey, taking a cigarette break outside the Yara, which was packed to the rafters with boisterous Cuban soccer fans for Sunday’s Argentina vs. Mexico match. “This is like our stadium,” Rabelo said.

Admission to the theater was less than 10 cents, but it wasn’t the only place for Cubans to watch the game. State-run television has broadcast all the World Cup matches for free, with Cuban announcers providing commentary as if they were watching from the stadiums of South Africa. Their voices have become such a daily constant that one can walk through a Havana apartment building these days and never be out of earshot of a game.

Read more GlobalPost World Cup Coverage

Cuba hasn’t fielded a team in the World Cup since 1938, when its lone appearance ended in an 8-0 shellacking by the Swedes. In contrast, the island has won countless international baseball tournaments, and it’s also famous for its Olympic gold-medal-winning boxers, track stars, volleyball teams and martial artists.

Cuba’s low soccer status isn’t for lack of effort. The island’s communist government has long promoted the sport in the name of internationalism, since the game has more of a global appeal than yanqui-invented baseball.

“We still have a long way to go,” said Yusniel Biscet, a 23-year-old mechanic wearing a bright yellow Brazilian soccer jersey. “We don’t have good fields here, or equipment, or coaches. There’s no tradition.”

During the World Cup, Cubans tend to root for Brazil and Argentina out of Latin American loyalty. The crowd at Sunday’s game was overwhelmingly pro-Argentina, even though Mexico is much closer geographically. This being Cuba, there were subtle political undercurrents at work.

“We feel close to the Argentine people for many reasons, and because of Che [Guevara],” said Alejandro Gonzalez, a 25-year-old law student, referring to the Argentine-born revolutionary, as he waited in line for popcorn in the theater’s lobby.