A great pool of talented young players. Cuba tackles how to strengthen participation, extend “football for all” on a mass basis for youth, talent assessment and training in skill development
By OSMANY TORRES & ARIEL B. COYA, PHOTOS: RICARDO LÓPEZ HEVIA
Granma (Havana, Nov. 1) – EVERYWHERE you look, in parks, lots and apartment house patios in Cuban cities, improvised fields in rural communities, people of all ages are joyfully running about to the cry of “Gol” – and not only under the sporadic influence of a World Cup, but every day.
This effervescent enthusiasm has today made football one of the most popular sports in the country, if not the most popular.
It is no accident that Dariem Díaz, coach of the Havana team, commented that football has taken root in Cuba to the point that its popularity can be described as massive, and talented young players can be spotted on the street everyday, as is the case in traditionally important football countries like Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.
Cubans are asking cardinal questions of sports institutions. Is enough being done to support football, to take advantage of its popularity to elevate the competiveness of national teams?
TALENTED YOUNG PLAYERS LEFT ON THE SIDELINES?
According to Yunelsis Rodríguez, Ph.D. in Physical Culture and Sports, a Havana football coach, much more could be done, more of an effort made, since no structure exists to systematically recruit talented young players, despite their presence on school, community and workplace teams.
In her personal experience, “Recruitment efforts exist, yes, but more often its coincidental, with youth and children we see on a street we walk down, or yes, by accident, if we live in the area,” she indicated.
And the issues of advisement and logistic support also enter the debate, since in her opinion, “There are many events organized throughout the country by the players themselves, through their own efforts.”
The National Football Commission does sponsor several projects to promote and develop the sport, under the banner of Football For All, according to Miguel Roselló and Miguel Fuentes, in charge of community work for this body.
The Inter Campus project was established with the support of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) which, in coordination with the Italian club Inter Milan, is organizing its eighth event in Cuba. During November, 60 children per province will participate in the Las Tunas, Holguín, Granma, Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo and Havana.
UNICEF also sponsors a program, supervised by Gladys Bécquer, to promote mixed play among boys and girls, awarding prizes to teams for sportsmanship, solidarity and, of course, skills displayed in games.
Competitions are additionally organized in different categories (pioneers, students, juvenile …).
Reality, however, has shown that this is not enough. The broad social spectrum of players who have made football so central in Cuba today is not being reached.
There is valuable work ongoing in places such as the Eduardo Saborit Community Sports Center, in the Havana municipality of Playa, for example, although many community fields are practically abandoned, like the Francisco Cardona in Diez de Octubre.
Despite the conditions, everyday players of all ages congregate here to play with a ball someone might bring. The players themselves mow and maintain the field, with no direct attention from any institution, so everyone can play, for fun, as young people do wherever a ball rolls.
It’s a shame, according to Jorge Ricardo de la Osa, who has played here for years, because high performance athletes emerge from such communities, from areas like this and because there are hundreds of frustrated amateurs who never become the players they could be.
An example of what can be accomplished with support, dedication and effort is the Camaquito project headed by Swiss player Mark Kuster, in the city of Camagüey, in coordination with the Cuban Football Association and provincial sports authorities.
The Camaquito competitions organized for all age groups have contributed to making football the most popular sport in the city, and, as if by magic, since the project was initiated, the provincial team has consistently qualified for the national semi-finals and has vyed for the Championship on two occasions.
Camagüeyan journalist Fidel Manzanares commented that Camaquito is known, people follow it because it is present in neighbourhoods, organizes sports events, supports the provincial team and trains coaches.
In the Havana neighbourhood of Lawton, for three years now a mini football tournament has been organized and an increasing number of youth are participating. Competition is currently held in three divisions, the first two with eight teams and the third with nine, in addition to a qualifying round.
According to Dariem Díaz, throughout the country thousands of inter-neighbourhood tournaments have been organized very successfully. Nevertheless, he asserted, to develop world class football, the sport must given institutional support, more serious attention.
This is not about eliminating sponteneity or bureaucratizing the sport, but providing the support needed to channel its massive popularity which could, with systematic effort, translate into more success at the national level, as former Cuban team goalie José Francisco Reinoso added.
The key would be to involve other sectors of society, beginning with schools, to better organize activities collectively, to promote competition over longer periods of time and strengthen participation – to respond to this epidemic of football fever as it deserves.