HAVANA: A game of political football became a friendly in every sense of the word on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) as the New York Cosmos defeated Cuba in an exhibition match that underscored thawing ties between the United States and its bitter Cold War foe.
The first appearance on Cuban soil of a professional US sports team in 16 years turned out to be a one-sided encounter, with the Cosmos romping to a comfortable 4-1 win over their amateur opponents.
But the result at the dilapidated Pedro Marrero Stadium was almost a footnote to the occasion, where not even a tropical downpour could dampen the carnival mood of several thousand fans who paid around four US cents a ticket to attend.
The footballing milestone is seen as the first step of new era in sporting ties between the United States and Cuba, whose governments are seeking to bury five decades of bitter Cold War antagonism following a historic rapprochement.
“Football brings people together and we saw this today in Havana,” said Cosmos star Raul, the former Real Madrid and Spain striker.
“It was an honor to play in this game.”
Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese said the game could herald the start of regular fixtures between teams from Cuba and the United States, even if it meant Cuban teams traveling in the other direction.
Everything is possible
“Everything is possible,” Savarese said. “The door opened today and we certainly think that this could be the beginning of an exchange.
“We were privileged and honored to be here and we’ll see what the future brings. Obviously this is a great first step, but the door is now open.”
Cuban fans had begun streaming into the ground hours before kickoff, despite the deluge, but roared their delight when Brazil legend Pele appeared briefly on a balcony overlooking the ground.
The 74-year-old icon, who finished his career at the Cosmos during the club’s 1970s heyday in the North American Soccer League, punched the air and smiled as fans chanted his name.
Shortly afterward, the Cosmos emerged alongside the Cubans to raucous cheers before the teams lined up for national anthems.
A stirring rendition of Cuba’s national anthem, La Bayamesa, was followed by warm applause for the Stars and Stripes, reflecting the marked absence of hostility among the home support.
Several Cuban fans were spotted waving American flags, something which would have been unthinkable until recently.
“For us Cuban people, it’s not often you can see renowned figures so close to us, so you can’t let events like these pass you by,” said Cuban fan Manuel Diaz.
Fellow fan Leonel Hernandez said: “I’ve been practicing football since I was a little kid so today was exciting to see the Cosmos coming to play here.
“These experiences will help the Cuban team improve technically.”
But any hopes of a famous win for the Cubans, ranked 109th in the world, were effectively snuffed out in the opening 45 minutes as the New York side punished slack defending to race into a 4-0 half-time lead.
Zimbabwe-born forward Lucky Mkosana opened the scoring on eight minutes, rifling in a low shot from just inside the penalty box that gave Cuban goalkeeper Sandy Sanchez no chance.
Uruguayan forward Sebastian Guenzatti drilled in a second on 32 minutes to double the visitors lead before Chirishian Hagop made it 3-0 moments later, bundling home a low cross.
Mkosana bagged his second three minutes before half-time, volleying home a fine cross from Hunter Freeman.
Cuba earned the biggest cheer of the match early in the second half when Andy Vaquero cut in from the left and slotted past Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer.