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Home team disadvantage: Has the embargo on MLB sparked soccer frenzy in Cuba?

They still worship their long favorite baseball pastime. But now more and more young Cubans are boldly swapping the bat and ball for soccer.

Editor's note: This article is part of a series by Boston University journalism students.

MATANZAS, Cuba — Just outside the stadium where Cuba’s first formal baseball game was played over a century ago, a 4-year-old boy stretched out his chubby legs and tried to kick a worn soccer ball down the street.

“Esteban has a bat and a glove, but soccer is his favorite,” said the boy’s father, who was watching nearby.

Young Esteban had just one thing to say about why he preferred soccer: “Messi!”

The fact that a young Cuban child idolizes an Argentine soccer star reflects the changing face of sports in this country.

Until recently, baseball was the unchallenged king of games in Cuba. Now, young people are embracing a range of athletic activities from badminton to paintball — and, above all, soccer.

Baseball remains by far the most popular sport in Cuba, but not by as wide a margin as in the past. The shift comes as many young Cubans move away from the ideology of the Cuban Revolution and its now octogenarian chiefs. Fidel and Raul Castro and their comrades — all fervent baseball fans — have closely controlled the sport here for decades.

“The younger generation is still committed to Cuba, but not to the revolution,” complained an elder Cuban. “They have the luxury of desire.”

Baseball dominated Cuban sports for generations long before Castro’s 1959 revolution. In 1962, the new government disbanded Cuba’s professional league and heavily promoted the new amateur one. It sought to make baseball an integral component of Communist identity. That turned the sport into what some people now see as a political tool.

As a result, an increasing number of young people are trying out other sports. They insist that they are not diluting their Cuban identity.

Another reason some young Cubans are less interested in baseball than their parents may be that the quality of the sport here is declining. Star players have defected to the United States, lured by multimillion-dollar contracts, the chance to play alongside the world’s best, and the opportunity to travel.

Travel between the United States and Cuba is closely restricted by both governments, even despite Castro's recent reforms permitting more — but not all — Cubans to leave the island with just a passport.

Cuba does not allow players who leave the island illegally and join professional teams to return and play for the national team. This has weakened the teams Cuba sends to international tournaments. Cuba won every Baseball World Cup from 1984 to 2005, but has not won one since. Its team at this year’s World Baseball Classic failed to reach the championship round.

More from GlobalPost: Why getting cut from Olympics may help world baseball

Observers say officials in Havana fear that welcoming and celebrating players who have defected would entice more to flee. Some Cuban fans consider this self-sabotage, and say it is partly responsible for their country’s decline as a world baseball power.

Baseball fever may also be fading also because the Cuban government does not allow American baseball games to be broadcast on any legally accessible channel.

Seeing Cuban-born players perform with major league teams would “attract enthusiasm and attention” to baseball, said Yusimi Rodriguez, a correspondent for the independent Havana Times. Because that is not possible for most Cubans, she said, “there isn’t the same reverence for baseball players here.”

Government officials consider the commercialization of American baseball — with its conniving agents, self-promotion, and exorbitant salaries — an affront to the purity of sport that clashes with revolutionary Cuban values.

Here Cuban players are modestly paid. They are trained at state-run academies and expected to play for sheer love of the game. They may play only for the team from their home province. Corporate sponsorship is unknown.

But soccer? Why, that’s a different matter entirely.

Unlike American baseball games, international soccer matches are shown in Cuba. Like other countries in Latin America and beyond, Cuba was swept up in the frenzy over the 2010 World Cup. Cinemas in Havana screened live matches.

Since then, pickup soccer games have become a common sight across the island. It is hard to walk down a Havana street without spotting jerseys of the most popular European soccer clubs. Organized leagues for aspiring young soccer players are becoming more common. On several shared fields in Havana, soccer and baseball teams practice side by side.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Much of Cuba still appears frozen in time, and many older Cubans still consider baseball an essential part of the Cuban cultural narrative.

Nowhere is that fidelity to tradition stronger than at the storied Palmar de Junco stadium in the provincial capital of Matanzas, where baseball has drawn crowds since 1874.

One of the trainers there, who gave his name as Miguel, said no other sport may be played on this hallowed ground.

“We have to keep this place only for baseball,” he insisted. “It’s a national monument.”

Nearby, however, little Esteban and his insouciant preoccupation with soccer suggested that Cuban baseball must prepare itself for new challenges.

This spring, Boston University journalism and photography students made a weeklong trip to Cuba. By special arrangement, GlobalPost is presenting six stories that emerged from their trip. The introductory piece is by Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times foreign correspondent who was the students' journalism professor. The five that follow were written by his students. Photos were taken by students working under the guidance of prize-winning photographer Essdras Suarez.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/cuba/130522/cuban-sports-baseball-soccer