Politics and football are often intertwined. Both war and peace have been created over soccer matches and the football pitch is often a space where players and supporters can display their feelings in a public manner. Wednesday’s announcement by United States President Barrack Obama to normalize relations with Cuba is no different.
Although perhaps the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States will be more directly felt in sports like baseball and boxing, soccer is still a very prevalent sport in Cuba. Despite only qualifying for one World Cup in their nation’s history (1938, where they shockingly beat Romania,) Cuba recently made the Quarterfinals in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup and won the 2012 Caribbean Cup.
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But perhaps where the Cuban national football team will be most positively impacted is with their players. Due to the nature of the embargo between the United States and Cuba, Cuban players were unable to be signed in the transfer market by U.S. teams. Much like in other sports, the Cuban football association has had trouble keeping players from fleeing team hotels and buses while they are playing in international buses. At the 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2011 Gold Cups, numerous players including Osvaldo Alonso of the Seattle Sounders defected from their country while playing in the United States.
With players now potentially being able to freely transfer between the United States and Cuba this treacherous path will hopefully no longer be necessary. Given the positive impact that playing in leagues like MLS, NASL, and USL Pro, not to mention the college level, has had on countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. It would be reasonable to expect Cuba to have a similar bump in the future.
Nov 10, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC midfielder Osvaldo Alonso (6) dribbles upfield against FC Dallas during the second half at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
The biggest question will be if Cuba allows players who have already defected to return to play for them. The country has previously been very reticent towards defectors, in particular athletes who have left the country. Cuba has also stymied players like Alonso from making switches to the U.S. Men’s National Team. One-time switches in these situations need to be approved by both the country of origin (in this case, Cuba) and FIFA.
Alonso has not released any statement since the news was made public nor has US Soccer or the Cuban Football Association.
Currently there are 9 former Cuban national team players playing in the US Soccer system with Alonso being the only player playing in MLS. Even if Alonso still wants to play for the U.S. and not Cuba, having additional talent could help improve their chances in the 2015 Gold Cup and qualifying for the 2016 Copa America.
What will also be interesting to see is if Cuban players will be allowed to attend the Caribbean Combine, which is scheduled to take place in January. The 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Championships will also be taking place in Jamaica later in the month and thus should be a great recruiting opportunity for MLS sides.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the politics of the deal, from a footballing perspective it could certainly be a win for Cuba and a win for MLS.