By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Brazilian football great Pele said he was pleased Tuesday's friendly between the Cuban national team and his former club the New York Cosmos might help foster better relations between the United States and Cuba, which have embarked on detente.
The Cosmos have scheduled the first match of an American professional sports team in Cuba since the two countries announced in December they would seek to end half a century of animosity.
"It makes me happy that once again football is helping with peace, between United States and Cuba," Pele told a news conference on Monday to promote the match at Havana's 28,000-seat Pedro Marrero Stadium.
"We see unhappily that there are a lot of political problems everywhere. But football brings people together. For me it's a big responsibility," said Pele, 74, whose real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento.
U.S.-Cuban relations have been hostile, particularly in the early 1960s when the United States organized an invasion of Cuba by a force of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, and when Washington and Moscow nearly came to nuclear war over Soviet missiles stationed in Cuba.
Relations remained sour even after the fall of the Soviet Union until last December, when U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced separately and simultaneously they would seek to improve ties.
Since then, the United States and Cuba have held bilateral talks in both capitals and the two presidents have met face-to-face at a regional summit in Panama, moving them closer to restoring diplomatic relations.
"I hope this match will be one more step toward much better relations," said Raul, 37, the former Real Madrid striker and Spain team captain who is the international star in today's Cosmos.
The Cosmos became a sensation in the 1970s when they signed Pele and other international stars to play in the North American Soccer League (NASL). The league folded in the 1980s and was re-established in late 2009 as the second tier of U.S. club football, below Major League Soccer (MLS).
Now the league hopes to make inroads into Cuba, where soccer is gaining on baseball as the country's most popular sport.
NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson said the match was a starting point to explore cooperation with on player development, coaching and officiating.
"Everything can be on the table and we'll take it one step a time and manage the relationship carefully," Peterson said.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)