BY Joe Cahal
The furore around FIFA has besmirched football but the game’s more beautiful side was on display in Havana on Tuesday night when New York Cosmos took on Cuba’s national team.
Pele and former Real Madrid legend Raul arrived with the Cosmos for the historic match only days after the US State Department removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The game was seen as a significant step towards improving relations between the two countries and provided a timely reminder about football’s positive power and its beautiful aspects following recent revelations highlighting its ugly side. “We are extremely privileged and honoured to accept this opportunity,” said Cosmos chairman Seamus O’Brien before the game which his side won 4-1.
Fittingly, Pele – the man credited with coining the phrase “the Beautiful Game” – was there to witness his former team’s win.
The Cosmos became world famous in the 1970s when, along with Pele, they signed other world-greats such as Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer in a bid to popularise the sport in the US. However, the game failed to take off and the Cosmos folded in the 1980s. But six years ago the team was re-born. They currently play in the second tier of US football, and became the first US soccer side to play in Cuba since the Chicago Sting played the national team in 1978.
The Cosmos chairman said: “Part of our vision for the team over time is not only to become a key player in the global soccer economy of tomorrow, but also to become a natural global ambassador for the United States, and in particular, for the great city and state of New York.”
Tuesday witnessed a warm reception from fans to the unfurling of the US flag on the Havana pitch and the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. The game signalled the warming of relations between the two states following December’s announcement by Presidents Obama and Raul Castro to try and restore full diplomatic relations between the two countries. Pele, making his first visit to the country, was cheered by crowds when he arrived at the airport and then again throughout the match.
As too former Real Madrid captain and current Cosmos poster boy Raul whose name was chanted repeatedly by fans, despite the visitors going 4-0 up in a rain soaked first half.
The hosts got a consolation goal after the break but the symbolism of the match was far more important than the result, despite the comments of Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese, who said: “The most important thing is the soccer part. That’s what we worry about. We go in there to compete. We have a bye weekend and we were able to fill it in with a match, and what a match to fill for that weekend.”
Cuba has not played in the World Cup since 1938, while it is 16 years since any US professional sports team has played in Cuba.
But the island won’t have to wait long to host another US side as officials have already announced that the Baltimore Orioles will take on Cuba’s national baseball team in a repeat of their 1999 encounter later this year. Baseball is one of the most popular sports in Cuba and the country once had its own major league franchise called the Havana Sugar Kings which was forced to move to Jersey City after the economic embargo was put in place by the US in 1961.