A Visit Cuba Exclusive!
On Friday, Cuba hosted Canada in a world cup-qualifying showdown of footballing minnows. Cuba hasn’t qualified for the finals since 1938 while Canada have to look back to 1986. This was billed as a must win between the two weakest team in the 4-team second round qualifying CONACAF group which also includes Honduras and Panama.
The game kicked off at the Havana’s Pedro Marrero stadium at 2pm which on a blisteringly hot June day, is an hour when only mad dogs and Englishmen are normally about. The atmosphere was boisterous and lively with typical Cuban characteristics. At US 5 cents a ticket this must be the cheapest entrance to a world cup qualifying game anywhere. No seats but comfortable stone seating and, crucially, shade over one side for the fans at least.
The pitch looked surprisingly green and lush and indeed perhaps a barren dustbowl would have been preferable to a surface where the long grass sapped the energy and seemed to limit the tempo even in the final period. You had the feeling they needed some more time to appreciate the delightful half time entertainment.
Cuba has something of a goal-scoring problem at present as Cuban forward Alain Cervantes explained in an interview with The Associated Press: ‘We have a solid team, but scoring goals is our pending task. We lack a killer instinct and skill at decisive moments, in part due to our lack of international experience…’
Cuba looked good bringing the ball out from the back, elegant players sweep the ball up-field, holding and carrying the ball with poise. It seems to take forever though and by the time they approached Canada’s area they had run out of ideas and the final ball, if not terribly delivered, was almost an afterthought.
Canada on the other hand have a solid hard-working feel to them at the back, not much elegance here but they dealt pretty comfortably with the Cuban attacks. Up front Dwayne De Rosario and Olivier Ocean were in a different league from anyone else on the park. Quick, sharp and ultimately decisive as Ocean headed in a glorious cross from David Edgar in the 54th minute.
Nine minutes later Cuba finally found some penetration with an insightful through-ball, which the Canadian keeper Hirschfield handled out of his box, an infraction for which he was sent off. The Cuban supporters went wild as the red card was shown and chants of Cuba, Cuba, Cuba rang out, surely this was going to see a change in the nature of the game.
Once order was restored Cervantes stepped forward to strike the ball inanely over the bar and that was pretty much that. Canada now rallied with 10 men and looked the more likely to score in the last part of the game. Cuba would work hard to bring the ball down the pitch only to let themselves down with the final ball, the final touch, the final shot.
By the end there simply was not enough tempo on the Cuban side and as the final minutes ticked by the Cuban crowd was amazingly out-sung by a raucous and delighted small Canadian barmy army wrapped in Canadian flags who even had the cheek to shout out Ole, Ole, Ole as the Canadian team strung 22 passes together – perhaps a Canadian record. As the final whistle went the Canadian team were delighted to have eked out a 1-0 win while the Cubans are left with a must do better motif. And everyone else was looking for where they could get a good stiff mojito!