Wet Feet, Dry Feet: The Story of Cuban Football

Our in-house author visited Cuba and dives into Cuban Football, into the culture of a politically torn country with a deep love for the game.

It goes without saying that if you were looking for something that was to embody modern-day capitalism, it would be football. Carlos Tevez earns £87,000 a day in China. 24 hours. Enough to make you reflect on the meaning of life. Even administrators of the game and FIFA officials, have used the sport to live lavish lifestyles previously only known to royalty and rock stars. If anything captures the romantic ‘’rags-to-riches’’ ideal which capitalism thrives off, it’s football. So it would make sense that football is currently at a crossroads in the country which represents the antithesis of capitalism: Cuba. The communist hub of the world, a country which has boldly stuck by its socialist identity and outlawed professional sports contracts in the 1960s.

A journey into modern-day Havana reveals an ideological juxtaposition which initially boggles the mind – 1950s American cars cruise through the roads, there is no wi-fi, and for a split second you feel like you are in a time-warp, until you see people walking the streets in Messi and Ronaldo football shirts or blazing American hip-hop on stereos. In a country where baseball has traditionally been the most popular sport, there has been a rapidly growing interest in football. A quick stroll through Havana‘s old town reveals an array of bars packed with people watching Real Madrid’s battle against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League. News reports on TV cover football news and highlights and Cuba has taken to the beautiful global game full of glamour and riches, but local football?  – ‘’Nobody watches Cuban football, it’s only Barcelona or Madrid,’’ says Juan, the Airbnb host we are staying with. It’s incomparable, with no stars or heavily-marketed games, no salaries and a low standard of play. Players earning a meagre 20 USD a month in the local football league (Campeonato Nacional de Fútbol de Cuba) with hardly any coverage or news, don’t represent the aspirations of the modern Cuban. My attempts to catch a local game were hindered first by a lack of information (with no adverts and internet connections rare, it was a tough mission to find out when and where games were taking place) and then the disappointing news relayed to me by a local at a bar that the Cuban local league was currently in the midst of a mid-season break. This lack of professionalism and interest in the local game is why Cuba, despite being the first Caribbean team to qualify for a World Cup in 1938, have subsequently been perennial underachievers.

The author in Havana, Cuba, enjoying his research on Cuban Football
Santokie in Havana, Cuba

It’s a sad state of affairs for an island which has had with an on/off love affair with the game for over a century now: the first club, Hatüey Sport Club, was formed in 1907 and the first official recorded game in Cuba took place in 1911. The sport took off in Cuba mainly due to the Spanish immigrants settled in the country, as well as English, Welsh and Irish men who also lived there. The game was popular; domestic clubs would make unofficial trips to play teams in Costa Rica during the 1920s where they would win comfortably, and in 1930 a national team was formed, becoming affiliated with FIFA in 1932. They qualified for the 1938 World Cup automatically due to the sheer amount of nations from the Americas who dropped out of the tournament as a protest against France being the hosts (1934 had been held in Italy and many felt it should have been held in North or South America in 1938). A thrilling 3-3 draw with Romania, and then a 2-1 win in the replay (yes, there were no penalty shootouts in those days) saw Cuba make the quarterfinals, where they lost 8-0 to Sweden.

Consequent diplomatic tensions meant that Cuba did not take part in World Cup qualifiers from 1949 all the way until 1979, as well as later withdrawing from qualifying for the 1994 tournament held in USA for obvious reasons. These withdrawals essentially banished football from the limelight for a sustained period. In 1981, the national team almost qualified for the 1982 World Cup, but missed out by a mere two points, indicating that despite being in the international wilderness for decades by that point, they still had quality in their footballing side.

This history of football on the island however pales in comparison to that of baseball, which began being played in the 1860s and would come to represent Cuban nationalism and pride within the nation. For an island which is the largest in the Caribbean, with a population of over 11 million (of the 31 islands in the Caribbean, Cuba’s population is more than the combined amount of 26 of those islands), it appears somewhat scandalous that Cuba has failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in 80 years. Historically it is clearly due to their withdrawal from World Cup qualification for 30 years, but their more recent failures can be explained with four political words: Wet Feet, Dry Feet.

During the 20th century Cold War, Cuba played a pivotal role in the battle between ideologies. Under the leadership of the late Fidel Castro, the communist country represented a close geographical threat to the USA and its pro-capitalist stance. This led to the Americans passing the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which allowed all Cubans fleeing the island to gain permanent residence status in USA after one year of arriving in the country. Then in 1995 President Bill Clinton amended the law, so that any Cubans who physically touched American soil could stay, but those who got caught in the waters (i.e. wet feet) on their journey would be sent back to Cuba.

The infamous ‘’Wet Feet Dry Feet’’ policy formulated by the USA to discourage the spread of communism on the island within citizens has also affected their national football team. Since 1999 over 20 players have defected while in America or Canada on duty, with the most recent cases occurring during the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. During that tournament four players defected and left the camp during Cuba’s group stage, including midfielder Ariel Martinez, who spent the bus ride after their 1-0 win over Guatemala crying, before running off, as team-mates described, ‘’into the darkness’’. Martinez would sign for Miami FC a few months later. Another six young players would defect later in 2015 during the sides 2016 Olympic qualifiers, and this represents the problem of sustaining a national football programme in Cuba – there has never been any guarantee players would stay long-term, the allure of financial security and safety in the states proving to be a tempting proposition.

Ahead of their 6-0 loss to USA in the quarterfinals of that 2015 Gold Cup, even opposition manager Jürgen Klinsmann expressed sympathy:

We know what they’re going through on and off the field, so it’s huge admiration with how they dealt with everything they went through.”

The 2015 drama was a mere continuation of a consistent run of defections for the national team: in 2005 forward Maykel Galindo defected and went on to make 74 appearances for MLS side Chivas USA. Even more high-profile was the 2007 case of Osvaldo Alonso, who left during a team-trip to famous American supermarket Wal-Mart, got access to a phone, called friends in Miami and left on a bus. Alonso would go on to make 277 appearances for MLS side Seattle Sounders. Naturally the players have no chance of playing for the Cuban national team again.

President Obama’s stint as leader of USA did prove to be groundbreaking for USA and Cuba, resuming diplomatic relations in 2014 and then becoming the first President since the 1959 Communist revolution to visit the island. Then, in a symbolic move, Cuba played USA in Havana last year, losing 2-0, although the wider context of the match would always mean more than the actual result. This was done to partly ease relations between the country as former President Obama pushed to abolish the ‘’wet feet dry feet’’ policy, which he managed to do in January of this year. What the end of the liberal immigration policy means for Cuban football is hard to tell; less players will be able to defect, but will the local game ever receive the funding and development needed to build a consistent national team? With football not being a full-time career option for Cubans, it has always been a credit to the talent of players that Cuba has been dominant in regional competitions, winning the Caribbean Cup in 2012 and qualifying for three successive CONCACAF Gold Cups from 2011-2015.

In 2013, the Cuban government recognised the need for players to seek careers abroad, and so for the first time ever, two players were allowed to sign professional contracts in Mexico with the full backing of the Cuban Government. Abel Hernandez and Maykel Reyes made history as they signed for Mexican top-flight side Cruz Azul as reserve team players. The only catch was that all taxes on their income were to be paid back to the Cuban government, who described the moves as ‘’an opening of a door to the world’’. However, recent years have seen a decline for the national side, with the team being knocked out of 2018 World Cup qualifiers by Patrick Kluivert’s Curacao, and then being eliminated from 2017 Caribbean Cup qualification with losses to French Guiana and Bermuda. The side currently languish 165th in the FIFA World Rankings and it seems they will stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Cuba is a beautiful country – a unique attitude to life radiates across the landscape and the committal to a socialist way of living is something to be admired. Yet the country is now at a pivotal crossroads, with many feeling the death of Fidel Castro will hark in an age of modernism and full embrace of capitalism, leading to the popular catchphrase from many to ‘’go before it changes’’. Whatever direction the country takes it feels inevitable that its footballing culture will eventually catch up with the rest of the western world, and as I sit in a Havana bar with fans singing about Cristiano Ronaldo and discussing the failings of Bayern Munich, while kids outside in the narrow Havana alleyways kick a ball around, I get the feeling that the change will come sooner rather than later.

Santokie Nagulendran

Writes about football across the globe, which provides a therapeutic release from the emotional turmoil of supporting Tottenham Hotspur