Gomezalberto_isi_mexicovscuba6-9-110610_web Steven Limentani/
Cuban soccer is, like most of the nation’s commodities, little-known off-island. Even at home, the sport has taken a backseat to baseball, long the chosen sport of the regime. But the country is opening up, if only slightly, under Raul Castro—considered by many to be more pragmatic and flexible than his brother—and so is the soccer. In December, just a month before the nation issued the proverbial red card to the white card—tarjeta blanca, the detested exit visa that had been required for Cubans to leave the country since 1961—the Cuban squad won its first-ever Caribbean Championship, improbably knocking off regional powerhouse Trinidad & Tobago 1-0 in the final.

Meanwhile, a young generation of Cubans are flocking to the sport, turning their back on baseball as Major League games are blacked out to Cuban viewers. Cinemas screened 2010 World Cup games to packed houses, and Messi jerseys clothe large chunks of the youth.

The nation enters the 2013 Gold Cup with anticipation and elevated expectations fitting a country with as rich a soccer history as Cuba, which was the first Caribbean team to participate in a World Cup. At the same time, those expectations are tempered, fitting a country with as poor a recent footballing history as Cuba, which has made more headlines for defections than victories.

Expect the unexpected during the tournament. For Cuba, nothing else would make any sense.







The Coach

Walter Benitez took over a squad in disarray. The first part of 2012 was awful for Cuba, as the team failed to secure a single victory in the third round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying and finished last in Group C. The 41-year-old stepped in ahead of the Caribbean Cup in November and promptly led the squad to its first Caribbean title. He did so with tactical nuance that earned him praise throughout the region.

Despite his relative youth, Benitez has been coaching at some level of Cuban football since 1993, when, as a player for Cuban squad Granma, he took over the youth side. He led the team to a runner-up finish at the National Youth Games the very next season and remained in that position through his 2004 retirement as a player.

In 2010, he also began coaching at the youth national level, serving as an assistant the 2011 Cuban U-20 squad that participated in the Pan American games and the CONCACAF U-20 championships.

The Tactics

In winning the Caribbean Cup, 141st-ranked Cuba played giant killer, knocking off regional favorites Jamaica (50), Haiti (57), and Trinidad & Tobago (79) to claim the title. The team did so by being tactically flexible. It began the tournament with heavy pressing all over the field, but because of its lack of squad depth, the team began to play a slower tempo and used that to win the tournament.

“By lowering the intensity in pressing, the opponents had better opportunities, but at the end we learned to handle the results,” said Alberto "Beto" Gomez, one of the Cuban stars.

That sort of adjustment is typical for Cuba, which often switch tactics mid-game with little warning under Benitez. When selecting the Gold Cup squad, he left out several talented and popular players for those he felt were in better shape and more "able to quickly take tactical approaches required for competition of such magnitude.”

Still, the squad’s preferred style of play is one of quick combinations up top and relentless pressing in the midfield, never letting an opponent settle on the ball. Benitez again: “Our style of playing is a kind of flowing, fast-moving football, where we create chances for our strikers and trust each other totally."

Expect to see clear definition in roles of attack and defense. A pair of holding midfielders is almost a guarantee, with two attacking wingers wide and either a striking pair or, more likely for this particular squad, a creative playmaker behind a central forward. Also expect Cuba to try to dictate play. Victory, if it comes, will come in style. Benitez recently said he hopes to “show good football to make a good impression, avoid thrashings and try to move to the next stage.”

“The first thing is to offer entertainment and play games worthy of respect,” he added.


The History

Cuba has not shown well at the Gold Cup, when it has shown at all. The 2013 edition of the tournament will mark Cuba’s seventh appearance, but twice the country has withdrawn for political reasons, including 2009. In its six appearances, Cuba has just one victory—a 2-0 win over Canada in 2003—to go with 13 defeats and two draws.

What’s more, Cuba has a history of players defecting while at the Gold Cup. At each of the country’s last three Gold Cup appearances, at least one player has defected, most recently Yosniel Mesa in 2011. The most famous of these was Osvaldo Alonso, the Seattle Sounders midfielder who defected during the 2007 Gold Cup.

"There is nobody I know of who makes a living from playing soccer in Cuba," Alonso said in a USA Today story earlier this year. “That's the main reason why we come."

CONCACAF Gold Cup Results
1991 – Withdrew
1993 – DNE
1996 – DNQ
1998 – Eliminated in first round
2000 – DNQ
2002 – Eliminated in first round
2003 – Eliminated in quarterfinals
2005 – Eliminated in first round
2007 – Eliminated in first round
2009 – Withdrew
2011 – Eliminated in first round

They Said It...