HAVANA (AP) — In a landmark act of sports diplomacy, soccer's New York Cosmos on Tuesday will become the first U.S. professional team to play in Cuba since Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama announced their countries would re-establish diplomatic relations.
Soccer's popularity is growing in both baseball-crazy nations and Cuban officials said the friendly match against the country's national team would be an important step in the normalization of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.
"In this new era that our two countries are living, this game is another link that will help establish the relations announced by the two presidents," said Antonio Garces, vice president of the Cuban Soccer Association.
While the two governments have yet to reopen embassies following the December announcement of detente, Havana has been flooded by a surge of U.S. tourists as well as delegations of lawmakers, business executives and athletes.
A group of retired NBA stars held a training camp for Cuban players in April, and Cuban officials have said a U.S. professional baseball exhibition game is planned for the near future, although Major League Baseball officials have said no plans have been made.
The Cosmos, who are leading the standings in the second-tier North American Soccer League, arrived Sunday night and trained Monday afternoon ahead of the next day's match at 30,000-seat Pedro Marrera stadium, which is to be televised nationally in Cuba.
"I'm happy that we came here to play soccer and unite two countries," Cosmos midfielder Walter Restrepo said. "The people have really welcomed us, with high expectations for the game."
Garnering much attention in Cuba were former Real Madrid star and current Cosmos player Raul Gonzalez and the team's honorary president Pele, the legendary Brazilian star who played for the original Cosmos franchise as his career was ending.
"I never imagined that Cuba against the Cosmos would happen. And to think Raul and Pele would come to Cuba, nobody thought that," fan Yosbani Fuentes said.
Asked about the bribery scandal that exploded last week in soccer's global governing body, Pele declined to criticize FIFA or its head, Sepp Blatter.
"We are players and we want to provide joy to the public and people. What happens with executives doesn't interest me," Pele said. "He's a man who has been there 25 years. You have to respect him."
While Cuba is far from a soccer powerhouse, the sport hasn't been spared the waves of departures that have robbed its teams of many top-ranked athletes. Forward Maykel Galindo left in 2005 and went on to play for several U.S. teams. Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso abandoned Cuba two years later and now plays in Seattle.
Cuba's relatively weak international soccer performance hasn't stopped the sport from spreading on the island, with growing numbers watching professional games on television and playing on dusty fields and neighborhood streets.
"Soccer is a people's sport that's gained a lot of popularity in recent years, in Cuba and the United States, and without a doubt it'll help tear down barriers and open doors," Garces said.
The last professional U.S. soccer team to visit Cuba was the now-defunct Chicago Sting, which played in 1978 after President Jimmy Carter sought to improve relations with Cuba and opened the interests section in Havana that both countries want to soon convert into a full embassy.
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report.
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