For the first time ever, the Asociación de Fútbol de Cuba has begun negotiations with Liga MX to allow Cubans to play in Mexico. According to a recent report from fan site Vamos Cruz Azul, the Cruz Azul might be one of the first beneficiaries of the talks. This is a big deal.
Two of the players profiting from these discussions are 22-year-old forward Maykel Reyes and U-23 left back Abel Martínez. Reyes is a Pinar del Río native and scorer of the lone goal in Cuba’s historic 1-0 victory over Guatemala at the Gold Cup this past summer, and both players are currently taking part in Cruz Azul’s preseason rumbo al Clausura 2016.
The fate of their professional fútbol careers lies in the hands of the Cuban government, which has historically prohibited athletes from emigrating to other countries since the triumph of the Cuban revolution. Although we might often equate fútbol cubano with goleadas and general ruin, the island country does have a respectable history in the sport. Cuba made the 1938 World Cup in Italy – defeating Romania by a score of 2-1 – and at least 10 Cubans were playing in Mexico during the 40s (José Antonio Rodríguez, Manuel Gil Fernández, Juan Tuñas, Juan Ayra, Manuel González, Fernando Blanco, Edelmiro Arnauda, Pedro Arnauda, Ovidio Arnauda, and Jorge Romo). More recently, Cuba won the 2012 Caribbean Cup, and, let’s not forget, reached the quarterfinals of this year’s Gold Cup. It has its own domestic league as well – the Campeonato Nacional de Fútbol de Cuba – which has been in existence for over 100 years.
While you would perhaps imagine these to be pretty decent standards for players in the region, the issue lies in two realities: first, Cubans are not permitted to go pro in Cuba, ever since the creation of the National Institute of Sports and Recreation (INDER) in 1960; and second, the path towards signing a professional contract abroad is arduous, to say the very least.
The Campeonato Nacional de Fútbol de Cuba has been in existence for over 100 years.
In September of 2013, Cuban officials announced that athletes from all sports would be allowed to sign contracts with foreign leagues. By September of the following year, it became clear that INDER simply did not have the legal framework to twist this vision into a reality. “In a way, the government washed its hands of the matter, saying: ‘here’s the law.’ But then it turned to us and asked us to analyze every case down to the smallest detail, to work slowly,” stated an anonymous source within the State organization to the Havana Times. “In the end, it looks as though INDER isn’t doing enough, but that’s not the case. One of the first things they told us was to allow those contracts for baseball only.”
Now, two years later, contract numbers still appear to be quite low, especially in relation to “the potential that exists in Cuba in nearly all disciplines,” says Ronal Quiñones of the Havana Times. Soccer players have had it particularly bad – the Asociación de Fútbol fails to so much as recognize some of its players’ accomplishments (take Oswaldo Alonso, for example, who defected during the 2007 Gold Cup while at a Walmart in Houston and is only now returning to Cuba after eight years). Defectors are often looked upon as “deserters” – subsequently prohibited from visiting the island – when in reality they want nothing more than to advance their careers and economic standings, simple desires that have largely been unattainable at home.
“Cubans are characterized by a fighting spirit.” -Arturo Diz Pé
Reyes and Martínez aren’t the only Cuban futbolistas striving to surge into the pro ranks abroad. Miami FC, the newest addition to the North American Soccer League (or NASL, a different organization from David Beckham’s Miami project), invited five Cubans to preseason training – Darío Suárez, Héctor Morales, Jorge Luis Corrales, and Keilen García. Arichel Hernández, Sandy Sánchez, and Arturo Diz Pé have been competing in similar preseason practices with Santos Laguna after the Mexican side’s trip to La Habana a few weeks back. In an interview with Cuba Debate, Diz Pé highlighted the likeness between Santos’ style of play and the Cuban way: “Santos are depicted as warriors, and we Cubans are characterized by that same fighting spirit. We come with the intention of fighting to help the club, making the most of this opportunity.”
“This isn’t just about earning spots on the team,” federation commissioner René Pérez told the Agencia Cubana de Noticias regarding the Cuban duo currently fighting for spots with Cruz Azul. His words ring true for the others too. “The most important thing is playing internationally in order to raise the level of each athlete.”
Mexico has always had warm relations with Cuba.
Negotiations between Cuban and Mexican officials could be the start of an encouraging trend towards legitimizing migration abroad for Cuban players, in turn decreasing defections and increasing opportunities to grow the game on the island. When it comes down to it, there’s probably no better jumping-off point than Mexico; the country has always had warm relations with Cuba – particularly with respect to amateur sports – and in an intercultural sporting exchange that took place back in 2006, Mexico even played host to approximately 180 Cuban trainers honing their craft abroad.
When asked about the potential effects of a collaboration between Cuba and Mexico, ESPN FC’s Nayib Morán said that positive developments could be in the cards going forward. “I think that if Cuba’s football federation permits some of its best players to go abroad and ply their craft in a league like Liga MX, it’s a win-win for Cuban football. For Mexican football, it’s hard to tell if it will be a win-win, but you never know, because if Cuba starts producing a handful of talented footballers, more than likely they would be first spotted by Mexican clubs.”
At the grassroots – in barrios and on street corners across the island – fútbol cubano is being played at truly unprecedented levels. There is greater access to matches on television, particularly La Liga, and conditions have never been better for a massive takeoff. That’s what makes the potential addition of Cuban players to Liga MX and even the NASL that much more exciting; it’s high time that these athletes start getting the opportunities and recognition that they deserve. These athletes are, in a way, blazing new paths, much like their country itself.