By Janelle Clausen
Havana, Cuba – Baseball may still be winning the soul of Cuba, but soccer is stepping up to the plate.
“The new generation doesn’t really care about baseball, but the older generation— that’s what they grew up with,” Alberto Valdez, 71, said. “Today’s youth likes soccer.”
Take Michael Medina, 35, for example. He has played soccer since he was six, although he still likes Cuba’s soul-dominating sport.
“Soccer is starting to rise, but baseball and boxing are tradition,” Medina said.
A tourist could still see children playing baseball in Parque Central, or at the entrance to
the Ernest Hemingway homestead just outside Havana. But that tourist could also see aspiring soccer players in fields beside the road, a child in a green David Beckham jersey and soccer appearing on more televisions throughout Havana.
This follows soccer’s increasing popularity globally, as well as in the United States. While numbers for Cuba aren’t available, Google Trends shows a steady uptick of American interest in the “Premier League” since 2007.
A group of young men gather in Prado, near Old Havana after work — or whenever they can— to talk sports. But while they often talk about American sports and Major League Baseball, Europe’s love for soccer is catching on.
“The real sport for Cuba is baseball,” said Alguero, 36, a former wrestler and baseball player in the group, “but the sport we’re talking about lately is [European] soccer.” Barcelona, he added, was one of the main teams they followed.
Alguero said baseball went a long time without challenge. “Ten years ago it was good,” he noted.
Part of soccer’s rising popularity among Cubans is its popularity around the world.
“It’s a big sport on the world stage,” said Juan, an Afro-Cuban baseball and soccer fan in a blue Italian jersey. “The whole world likes it.”
But it also follows a longtime athletic—if not revolutionary—tradition in Cuba. Sports was described as a “right of the people in a March 1967 article in the Granma Weekly Review, a government mouthpiece. Then in 1974, Fidel Castro said, “…our athletes are the children of the Revolution and, at the same time, the standard-bearers of that same Revolution.”
For some Cubans, it doesn’t matter what sport an athlete plays.
“There are a lot of sports that are rising here now,” Valdez said.
“Sports have risen here because there are sporting schools,” he added. “Young children– ages 12,13,14—are in sporting school and develop there.”
To be fair though, not everyone’s a sports fan. Some like Yurixan Garcia, a taxi biker in Havana with a sixteen-hour shift, said he’d rather have fun by working and work. He has a family to take care of.
“Sometimes, people have complicated lives. My mom died when I was eight. I had to think big: working, tending to my family,” Garcia said.
“I don’t know much about sports… [though] I have friends who are soccer fanatics,” he added.
The future of sports like soccer is unclear. Juan said that the future lies in the youth, while Valdes said he can’t comment (it’s been awhile since he’s played sports, he noted). But Michael Mendina has an optimistic forecast: Cuba’s sports scene as a whole will keep growing.
“Each day,” he said, “we continue to improve.”
For now, it looks like soccer hasn’t quite stolen home just yet.