U.S.-Cuba Policy Needs a Soccer Lesson

As soccer enthusiasts know, the Copa de Oro, or Gold Cup, is currently underway in stadiums across the United States, providing desperate fans with a much-needed fix of consequential, nationalism-laced games to hold them over between World Cups. Held every two years, the tournament comprises teams representing North America, Central America and the Caribbean.  Without the participation of South American heavyweights such as Brazil and Argentina, the tournament provides a chance for the hemisphere’s weaker teams to show the world what they’ve got and face off against traditional powerhouses like Mexico and the United States. Unfortunately, Cuba didn’t have much to “show” last night against Mexico, losing 5-0.

http://www.thehavananote.com/sites/thehavananote.newamerica.net/files/cubaus2008_0.jpg But that wasn’t a colossal shock. As we all know, in Cuba, it’s baseball that reigns supreme. Soccer never swept the island nation that way it did most of Latin America.  The government of Fidel Castro declined to endorse the sport in a meaningful way, instead dedicating precious government resources to sports in which Cuba already had the beginnings of a strong international reputation such as baseball and boxing. While Cuba did send a team to the third-ever World Cup in 1938 and has continued to make a respectable showings at the Gold Cup in recent years, soccer has remained on the sidelines of Cuban culture.  Not even Argentine soccer deity Diego Maradona’s extended stay in Cuba for drug-rehab in the early 2000's was able to spark much excitement for the sport.  

In contrast, soccer in the U.S. has enjoyed a surge of popularity over the last 20-25 years. The 1994 FIFA World Cup, hosted by the U.S., reignited American interest in soccer, and led to the subsequent launch of Major League Soccer (MLS).  According to The Nielson Company, an estimated 111.6 million U.S. viewers watched the 2010 World Cup, a 22% increase in viewers from 2006 World Cup viewership. From the 2002 to 2006 World Cup, viewership increased an astounding 90%. As MLS Commissioner Don Garber said, "It's not the NFL, but we're 10 years old, (and football has been played here for) over 100 years."  

In many ways, the evolution of U.S. soccer was the result of the very best of American values at work- welcoming that which is new and different, and adapting to new realities. Much of soccer’s popularity and promising future is thanks to the U.S.’s growing Latino immigrant population for whom fútbol is a cultural cornerstone. While U.S. soccer continues to have its detractors, the intensity of their rancor has diminished in recent years. When was the last time a U.S. Senator took the Senate floor to rail against the sport? (Yes, Sen. Jack Kemp did in 1986 to oppose the U.S.’s bid to host the World Cup). http://www.thehavananote.com/sites/thehavananote.newamerica.net/files/boyssoccer.jpg

So when a friend suggested we take in a Gold Cup match earlier this week, it got me thinking about the divergence between U.S. soccer and U.S.-Cuba policy over the last 25 years.

As Franklin Foer explains in his 2004 work, “How Soccer Explains the World”, “Globalization increasingly provides the subtext for the American cultural split [over soccer].” The divide over U.S.-Cuba policy can be characterized in much the same way- one can embrace the reality of a more interconnected world where U.S. dominance is no longer absolute, or continue to cling to an obsolete notion of American exceptionalism. U.S. policy toward Cuba is being held hostage by the same club of “anti-soccer” culprits – those who fear breaking with the past, and of accepting today’s reality- in the U.S., in Cuba, and internationally- for what it truly is- one in which the U.S. embargo against Cuba has no place . 

Photos courtesy of Flickr/goddam; escalepade

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