Friday, June 30, 2006

World Cup fever infects Cuban children

World Cup fever infects Cuban children

By VANESSA ARRINGTON, Associated Press Writer

SANTIAGO, Cuba - Cuba, the land of baseball fanaticism, has caught World
Cup fever. Children across the island are putting down their bats in
favor of the ultimate foot game, turning patches of grass into soccer
fields and using everything from basketballs to crumpled-up pieces of
paper as balls.

In Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city after Havana and home to one of
the island's top baseball teams, informal soccer games fill the streets
and plazas, despite tropical rainstorms and the Caribbean summer's
steaming temperatures.

"If they're playing baseball on television, we play baseball. But if
they're playing soccer, we play soccer," said Osniel Macias, 9, as he
watched his buddies push around a slightly deflated ball on a patch of
grass near their homes.

Actual soccer balls are rare on the island. So, too, are the sprawling
fields with fresh-cut grass and sprinklers like those in suburban
America. But like their resourceful parents who find creative solutions
to combat scarcity, the kids skillfully incorporate their environment
into the game, jumping up on curbs while passing and bouncing the ball
off the park benches that jut into their makeshift fields.

Goal posts are rocks and tree trunks, and jerseys are bare backs. Many
kids play barefoot. Some run the fields with one sneaker, sharing the
other with a friend.

"I really like soccer," said Omani Debro Guzman, 11. "I feel like I'm
getting in good shape when I play — I can feel my muscles getting
stronger. Soccer's really good for the abs."

The boy, however, said baseball is his favorite sport. His city's team,
Santiago de Cuba, was last year's champion of the island's National
Series, and made it to the finals this year before being defeated by
Havana's Industriales.

In the World Cup, most Cubans are rooting for either Brazil or Argentina
— Latin America's regional powerhouses. But many say they think Germany
will win. Games are transmitted — some live, others delayed — on radio
and television. Shouts of "Gooooooolllll!" echo through the streets,
competing with the repetitive strains of reggaeton coming from nearby homes.

"Ever since the World Cup started we've been playing soccer," said
Siukin Gongora, a 20-year-old accounting student playing at the Santiago
waterfront. "It's a type of fever that comes over us."

Even Cuban authorities have caught the bug.

Jose Ramon Fernandez, president of Cuba's Olympic Committee, said the
government plans to launch an island-wide campaign to further develop
soccer, overshadowed for decades by baseball. Cuba's baseball team won
the gold medal for baseball in the
Olympic Games in 2004, 1996 and 1992; the last time the island's soccer
team even participated in the World Cup was in 1938.

But in the 1920s and 1930s, Fernandez said, soccer was even more popular
in Cuba than baseball.

"It's not about introducing something new, it's about recovering
something that's been forgotten," he told journalists in Havana this
month. "I see the televised transmission of the World Cup as an
incentive, along with the actions we take, to awaken the interest of the
youngest Cubans, and the populace in general, in soccer."

Fernandez, also a vice president in Cuban President
Fidel Castro's cabinet, said he envisioned "thousands of people kicking
the ball on any of the street corners where champions come from, just
like in baseball."

The concept is alive in Santiago's streets.

But at least one local resident said it wouldn't be long until attention
is back on baseball.

"The second the World Cup is over, everyone will stop playing soccer,"
said David Muniz, a 19-year-old physical therapy student. "Just watch."

Associated Press correspondent Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed
to this report.

No comments: