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Futbol fever on baseball island

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

“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.”