Cuba v United States: don’t mention the politics
The United States face Cuba in Havana on Saturday; the first time in over 60 years that they have played on the Caribbean island and given the political tensions between the two countries it is a fixture that has caught the imagination of the media — unusually for two countries where soccer is far from the national obsession.
The problem, for reporters, with stories like this is that the politics is the only really interesting aspect to the game but no-one involved will ever say anything remotely spicy on the topic.
It is one of those situations where reporters try in vain to get some words on the off-the-field context while the players, quite understandably, insist it is only about the three points, just another game etc, etc.
I was out at the U.S training session at Barry University yesterday and had a chat with captain Carlos Bocanegra and forward Clint Dempsey and while both were looking forward to their trip to Cuba — a place most Americans can’t travel to due to the embargo — neither wanted to talk politics and frankly, why should they? They are paid to win football matches and occasionally to talk to the media about football. U.S foreign policy isn’t part of the deal.
It was the same back in 1998 when I covered the US v Iran game at the World Cup in France. That match was intensely charged politically but no-one wanted to admit as such despite the constant, at times desperate, attempts of the media to stir things up.
When the Iran match, in Lyon, finally came around it was an extremely cordial affair with polite handshakes all-round. I suspect Saturday night at the Pedro Marrero stadium will be similar in that respect.
The fans might get some sort of kick out of the addition of an off-the-field rivalry but players usually don’t and in the case of Cuba I doubt the U.S team will find any sort of hostility awaiting them, especially given the embargo means there won’t be any U.S fans there.
Cuba v U.S may be a great storyline (especially if the Cubans pull off a surprise) but there isn’t much nasty about it.
What brings out the nastiness in football is when fans combine extreme nationalism with violence. You can find that in many parts of Europe and South America — but I doubt we will see any of it in Havana on Saturday.
PHOTO: Members of U.S national soccer team arrive at Jose Marti airport in Havana September 4, 2008. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa