By CIRCLES ROBINSON*
(MARCH 21, 2008) – I GREW UP watching my father play a lot of beach volleyball. Since living in Cuba, I have also become fond of conventional volleyball, a game quite popular on the island.
Last week the Chinese and Cuban men’s teams squared off at the Havana “Sports City” indoor coliseum for two exhibition matches. Unable to make the first, I didn’t want to miss the second. Despite it being a school night, I took my 6-year-old grandson for his first visit to our “superdome”, built in 1957 with a 15,000 capacity.
Tickets are sold for one and two pesos, the equivalent of 4 and 8 cents of a US dollar, within anyone’s reach. The more expensive tickets were for wooden seats on the first two levels, and the cheaper tickets bought a space on benches higher up.
The first thing we did upon entering the stadium was to buy some popcorn. Others around us were snapping up the other food items for sale: lechon pork sandwiches and chocolate coated ice cream bars.
We arrived a half hour early to get good seats and see the players warm up. However, finding seats turned out to be not all that easy. We attempted to sit down twice, only to learn that we had chosen blocks of seats that were reserved for a large group of Chinese students who are in Cuba to study Spanish.
Finally seated on the second level, I started explaining to Axel who was who, which he had already figured out, and observing the stadium and its decorations. There were no advertisements; just a couple of small scoreboards, a large portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara (there was no need to tell the boy who he was), and a potpourri of red, white and blue banners tastefully hanging from the ceiling, giving a kind of birthday party atmosphere.
Down on the court, the warm-up resembled a choreography of giants jumping up and down and more than a dozen blue and yellow balls flying in the air.
After the passing drills it was time for practicing attacks. This proved quite humorous from our vantage point, as several hard spikes flew past the court helpers and into the ground floor crowd which had to be on red alert so as not to get bopped. A few did!
The practice ended, and the player announcements and national anthems of both countries were played over the loudspeakers. One amusing detail was that the announcer for the Chinese team called out the players’ numbers in English, despite the presence of several hundred Spanish students in the crowd.
Play ball began right on time at 8:30.
Axel had come with a Cuba tank top on and was set to root for the home team. However, the Cubans had decided to start off with their rookie players and the Chinese got off to a strong early lead.
Concluding that the die was cast, Axel decided that he didn’t want to back the loser and made an abrupt about-face announcement that he was really for China. Of course I stuck with Cuba.
Cuba lost the first two sets 25-20 and 25-21 and then the boy fell fast asleep on my lap, convinced he had gone to bed with the winner.
By the third set though, the islanders had brought in some of their real starters and things began to turn as Cuba won set three, 25-23. They also took the fourth, 25-19, setting the stage for the fifth tiebreaker-set which is played to 15 points.
China, with excellent defence and passers and two first-rate spikers, were not throwing in the towel and were perched to win after taking a 14-11 lead. Then the excitement gradually reached a crescendo as Cuba scored five straight points to win 16-14 (according to volleyball rules you must win by two points).
The two teams may lock horns again later in the year in the Beijing Olympics, but first Cuba has to prove its strength in May’s qualifying tournament in Dusseldorf, Germany. China automatically qualifies for the Olympics as the host team.
To the delight of locals, the popular Cuban women’s volleyball team has already qualified for Beijing.
After carrying Axel for a while, I finally had to wake him up so he could sleepwalk the rest of the way to a friend’s car that would take us home. It wasn’t until the morning, when he came into my office to say goodbye before leaving for school, that I broke the news of who won the match. I stifled the impulse to rub it in. Axel had no comment, but we both agreed that the night out at the Sports City arena had been great fun!
*Circles Robinson is a US journalist living in Havana. His reports and commentaries can be read at: http://www.circlesonline.blogspot.com