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Cuba promises 'warm welcome'
by Mike Woitalla, September 6th, 2008 11:55AM
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Mike Woitalla reports from Havana
The corrugated metal roof of Pedro Marrero Stadium, damaged by Hurricane Gustav, was being fixed by brave acrophobia-free men and fortunately no one was hit when one of the panels fell down.

Others carried hundreds of plastic deck chairs into the stadium for the front rows.

But busiest of all were the two men who cut the entire field by pushing around the kind of two-stroke engine lawnmowers more appropriate for a backyard grass. And what thanks do they get?

"The grass is a little long," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley on the eve of his team's World Cup qualifier against Cuba.

"The field's not great," said midfielder DaMarcus Beasley. "It's hard, bumpy, but hopefully they'll cut the grass tomorrow."

Don't bet on it. Wouldn't be enough time.

Also on Friday, the ESPN crew scrambled to set up their equipment after having to wait on Friday morning for the electricity to be turned on because fuel was needed for the generator.

Before their Friday practice, several U.S. players took taxis from the Hotel Melia Cohiba to Old Havana and some bought paintings at an outdoor market. Artwork is one of the few items that may be brought back to the USA from Cuba.

The stadium (capacity: 17,000) was opened in 1930 to host the Central American and Caribbean Games. It was called the Cerveza Tropical Stadium and was used for baseball, soccer and track & field.

After the revolution it was renamed Estadio Pedro Marrero after Fidel Castro's friend, who died in 1953 in the Moncada Garrison attack. The unsuccessful July 26 assault, in which Marrero drove the vanguard car, was the first armed insurrection against the military dictatorship by the Castro-led rebels.

In 2004, the facility was revamped with funds from FIFA's Goal Program and serves as headquarters of the Cuban soccer federation. Among the items in the trophy case is the passport of Mario Lopez, a star of Cuba's 1938 World Cup. That squad, whose other key players were immigrants from Spain, beat and tied Romania before losing to Sweden, 8-0, in the quarterfinals.

It was the only World Cup appearance by Cuba, which did have teams at the 1989 and 1991 U-17 boys World Cup. FIFA technical reports from those tournaments are included in the trophy case, as is a 2004 United Soccer League media guide.

Cuban federation president Luis Hernandez played for Cuba in the 1970s for 10 years and was its playmaker. Highlights of his career included victories over the USA in the 1971 and 1979 Pan American Games.

"But the United States soccer wasn't as it is now," says Hernandez. "Now you have many excellent players and play high quality soccer. We have looked very closely at how soccer has developed in the United States and are very impressed with the game at all levels."

The running track around the Pedro Marrero Stadium means its fans are far from the field. It's not a layout conducive to creating intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams.

"The U.S. team will have a very warm welcome here in Cuba," says Hernandez. "Your team's best plays will be cheered.

"We have great respect your team. But the best way to show you respect is to beat you on the field."

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