Futbol fever on baseball island

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.

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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.

“And because of Maradona,” said his sister, Camila, 18, her face was painted with the colors of the Argentine flag.

“He and Fidel have a very close relationship,” Alejandro noted.

Diego Maradona, the Argentine manager and soccer icon, is a familiar figure on the island, having come to Cuba for drug treatment, and with tattoos of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara on his arms. When the theater played an ESPN documentary about Maradona before Sunday’s game, the Havana crowd erupted in cheers.

Not everyone was clapping though. A small group of friends arrived with a hand-painted sign that said “Maradona: Your World Cup Ends Here.” Pablo, a 22-year-old web administrator who didn’t want to give his last name, said the message was an indirect form of political protest against the Castro government.

“They’re always trying to make sports about politics,” he said, “and we’re sick of politics. Most people here are for Argentina, but we want to be different.”

Some Cubans in the crowd even came equipped with vuvuzelas, the plastic horns whose droning buzz has brought complaints from players and fans. “A friend sent it me from Germany,” said Amed Olivares, 21, who came to the theater with a red horn and a German flag, even though his team wasn’t playing that day.

The theater didn’t sell beer, but many Cubans brought their own anyway, and when Argentina scored its first goal, the building seemed on the verge of collapse.

“Ar-GEN-tina!” “Ar-GEN-tina!” the Cubans roared.

Would this sudden passion for soccer live beyond the World Cup?

“Cubans are passionate for the moment,” said Vicente Masson, who confessed to liking soccer more than baseball. “If it’s baseball season, they’ll play a lot of baseball. If the World Cup is on, they’ll play soccer.”

“Basically,” said Masson, “we love whatever’s on TV.”