Cuba tries new path to reach World Cup: help from overseas

Goalie Yan Junior Mendoza, 15, at a football practice near the Estadio Nelson Fernandez, which is primarily used for baseball, in San Jose, Cuba, December 22, 2014. (Photo: NYTimes)
When its campaign to qualify for the 2022 World Cup begins this week, Cuba will use an approach it has not tried in years: fielding many of its best eligible players.اضافة اعلان

For years, only Cuban players who had contracts with INDER, the country’s governing body for sports, were selected to represent the national team. This month, that will change. Cuba has called in several players who are based abroad — and outside the official Cuban sports system — to play in a set of World Cup qualification matches.

That means potential national team debuts for Norwich City wing Onel Hernández, Spain-based defender Carlos Vázquez Fernández and San Marino-based forward Joel Apezteguía. It also means a return to the national team after six years away for defender Jorge Luis Corrales.

“I didn’t know if I should shout or laugh, because there are a lot of conflicting feelings,” said Corrales, who plays in a second-tier league in the United States. “The images of many years playing with the national team and all the great moments went through my mind. I think once again participating in those moments will be one of the best experiences I’ve had since arriving here to the United States.”

To outside observers, the overseas-based players fall into a category that is difficult to distinguish from Cubans who walked away from national teams during tournaments abroad or defected elsewhere. But there is an important distinction that makes all the difference to Cuban officials: All of them either left the island with their parents as children or were given permission by the government to go abroad.

Corrales, for example, was allowed to visit his father in Miami after the 2015 Gold Cup, a major regional championship, and decided to stay after he was granted a five-year visa. He has since played for several teams in Major League Soccer and the United Soccer League Championship (USL), the second division in the United States, including for his current employer, FC Tulsa.

Apezteguía is hoping to make his national team debut at age 37. He played in Cuba until he was 24 before leaving to help his father run a bar and restaurant in Spain. After years of laboring in Europe’s smaller leagues (Moldova, Albania and his current home in San Marino are highlights) and hoping to be noticed by Cuban football officials, the call finally came.

Hernández, 28, left Cuba when he was a child to move to Germany. He started his professional career in the German second division before moving to Norwich City, which he helped earn promotion to the Premier League in 2019. That summer, he became the first Cuban to play in the Premier League. A few months later, in a match against Manchester United, he became the first Cuban to score a goal in it.

Hernández had expressed interest in representing his country of birth in the past, even accepting an invitation to train with the national team, but suiting up in an official game still seemed impossible until this month.

Vázquez Fernández, a 21-year-old known as CaVaFe, left for Spain with his parents when he was 3. He developed his football game there, rising through Atlético Madrid’s academy and training with the first team at times. He has expressed his desire to wear the Cuba jersey for years but had no timeline in mind.

“I knew this first call-up was going to come,” he said. “What I didn’t know if it was going to be sooner or later, in 2028, 2025, 2021, but I knew it was going to happen. I’ve always been positive.”

What none of the players is sure about, though, is why the calls are coming now.

Hernández has had regular contact with Cuba’s manager, Pablo Elier Sánchez, including video chats to get up to speed on the team’s tactics. He and the other players said they felt Sánchez and a handful of other officials had facilitated their call-ups by working for several years to convince football and government officials to bring them into the fold.

Sánchez addressed the new faces in a brief airport interview upon arrival in Guatemala Sunday, saying they would “undoubtedly” strengthen his team.

“They’re players who are playing in important leagues, first-class leagues in the world,” he said. “They’re going to bring a lot when it comes to the results the team can get.”

Cuba has offered no official explanation for its sudden openness to players from outside the national sports system, or if the success of these initial steps might usher in an openness to a prospect that has to date been unthinkable: reinforcing Cuban sports teams with defectors who represent the elite of the Cuban sporting diaspora, not just football players like Osvaldo Alonso and Maikel Chang but potentially baseball stars like José Abreu and Yuli Gurriel.

Messages left with Sánchez, federation officials and INDER were not returned.

The players are hoping they can make a difference. Apezteguía said it had been difficult to watch Cuba’s national team, ranked 180 of 210 FIFA members, and know he could raise its level of play.

“We have so many kids in Cuba that love football, and they want to live the dream that I lived,” Hernández said.