On Havana's Malecon, a four-mile long waterfront walkway, I ran into three boys who were jumping off the seawall into a small gap of water between the rocks below.
From the Malecon you can look northward over the azure ocean toward the USA, only 90 miles away.
"I really like Havana. … The sea is strange. It's like the sky. You can see things you want to imagine," said American actor Marlon Brando when he was among the many celebrities hanging out in Cuba in the 1950s, when it was run by military dictator Fulgencio Batista and American mobsters.
As I looked at the sea, I considered how daunting the trip across the Straits of Florida on a homemade raft must be for Cubans fleeing for U.S. soil. My thoughts were interrupted when one of the boys shouted something about a moneda.
He pointed to a manhole-size opening in the rock surface and then to another that matched it 15 feet away. He would, I inferred, jump into the water through one of the holes and come out of the other. For the performance, I should give him a moneda.
By the time I had thought through how to say in Spanish, "Don't do it! I'll give you a coin anyway!" he had disappeared into the water. About 15 seconds had passed and I started worrying. As he remained underwater, I began contemplating what to do should he not reemerge. Just then he popped up through the same hole and shook his head apologetically. I gave some coins to the boys, then headed back to my hotel in Old Havana to catch the bus to the Cuba-USA World Cup qualifier.
In the lobby of my hotel, the Parque Central, you can get wireless Internet access, watch CNN or ESPN on big screen TVs, and sip delicious mojitos made by a bartender who says confidently, "I think Obama will end the embargo."
The USA had recognized Batista's government two weeks after his coup overthrew an elected president in 1952. But nearly 50 years after Castro's revolution, the USA still has in place an economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba.
The Parque Central lobby, in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 1959, was the site of a wild gunfight between Fidel Castro's rebels and Los Tigres de Masferrer, a paramilitary group that supported Batista. Later that day, Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, Che Guevara and the rebels celebrated the fall of Batista while Cubans trashed the Havana casinos that had been run by American mobsters aligned with Batista.
Besides the embargo, the USA's other attempts to end the Castro reign included the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion and unsuccessful CIA-plotted assassination attempts on Fidel.
This history created American media interest in the Cuba-USA game beyond what is usually afforded a U.S. World Cup qualifying game.
POLITICAL SIDESHOWS. Soccer being the world's most popular sport makes it inevitable that political enemies face off on the field, and the most infamous such game also came in Concacaf World Cup qualifying.
Honduras and El Salvador played three qualifiers in 1969 amid strife between the nations over a trade agreement, a border dispute, and the Honduran expulsion of Salvadoran immigrants and migrant workers. Fans clashed at the games, and a four-day war broke out 17 days after the last game. It was dubiously dubbed "The Soccer War" by international media although it's known as the "100-Hour War" in the countries that fought it.
At the 1986 World Cup, Argentina's 2-1 quarterfinal win over England came four years after the two nations fought over the Falkland Islands. Argentine captain Jose Luis Brown said before the game all his team's players had "cousins, fathers, nephews" who fought in the Falklands – "and some of them didn't come back." But Brown dismissed the war's implications on a soccer game. Journalists, he said, "had a habit of befouling sporting issues."
When the USA was drawn to play Iran in the 1998 World Cup, the New York Daily News announced a "World Cup War." The New York Times headline was, "Group Hug? Doubtful" and Sports Illustrated offered "A Devil of a Draw," alluding to "The Great Satan" epithet for the USA attributed to Iranian leaders. The U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg joked, "All we need is an Iraqi referee."
The animosity between the nations stemmed from the USA's pre-revolution support of the Shah and Iran's hostage-taking of 52 Americans in 1979 for 444 days.
On the eve of the game, U.S. captain Tom Dooley, like Brown, became exasperated with the media's focus on the off-field issues: "They are creating issues where there are none. Athletes are being asked questions that have nothing to do with why they are here. Athletes don't think like this – about political relationships between two nations."
Before the Iran-USA game, the U.S. players exchanged gifts with the Iranians and mingled for a joint team picture. Iranian fans, predominantly exiles who opposed the current Iranian government, partied with American supporters before and after the game that was won 2-1 by Iran and knocked the USA out of the World Cup.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN HAVANA? Before facing Cuba on the soccer field, the American players had to field endless questions about the nations' relations.
"I don't know what to expect down there, everyone is trying to go with an open mind to just get the win," said captain Carlos Bocanegra. "When we played in Venezuela [2007 Copa America] the presidents [Hugo] Chavez and [George W.] Bush were not on the best terms and we had a great reception down there, everyone was fine."
Landon Donovan, told that neither U.S. cash nor American credit cards are accepted in Cuba, told Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl, "Where the hell are we going? Mars?'"
Once they arrived in Havana, the American players were queried by American press for their reaction to the giant billboard that greeted them as their bus left the Jose Marti Airport. On it were side-by-side images of President Bush and Adolf Hitler, and a caption identifying them as "murderers."
The American players politely declined to comment on the billboard, and remarked instead on how friendly their reception had been so far.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley said, "We are honored to represent the United States in this historic occasion to come here and play Cuba. It's exciting for all of our players. We know that this game will get extra attention and it's always exciting to play in that type of situation."
Practically lost amid the hype was the fact that the USA was facing the weakest soccer-playing nation in its four-team semifinal qualifying group.
BASEBALL COUNTRY. In the days before the World Cup qualifier at the Pedro Marrero Stadium, few in Havana seemed aware of the game. Telling various Habaneros that I'm here for the USA-Cuba game, some asked me if it was a baseball game. One man guessed I'm talking about futbol de salon, indoor soccer.
Two days before the game, Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, buried its preview of the game under articles about a female hammer thrower qualifying for the world championships and the Paralympic Games coverage.
Granma, one day before the game, ran a short article on how this is the first visit by the U.S. national team since 1947 for a friendly game the Cubans won, 5-2. But baseball and Paralympic ping-pong received more space.
Baseball, which was introduced by American sailors who played with locals at Cuban ports in the 1860s, is king while soccer also ranks behind track & field, volleyball and basketball in popularity. German Reinhold Fanz, who started coaching Cuba's national soccer team in March, does not receive a salary. Only his travel and living expenses are covered.
Cuba did reach the World Cup once, in 1938, thanks to Mexico's withdrawal. A team dominated by immigrants from Spain tied and beat Romania and lost, 8-0, to Sweden.
While Cuba's communist government has long invested heavily in Olympic sports — Cuba has won more medals than any country its size (population 11 million) in the last 40 years — soccer received little support. Cuba withdrew from 1994 World Cup qualifying because it couldn't afford trips abroad.
Only in recent years has Cuba shown progress on the soccer field. It has been qualifying for the Gold Cup, in which it beat Canada in 2003, and fielded a U-23 team at the 2008 Olympic qualifying tournament in Tampa, Fla., last March that showed much promise.
The Cuban U-23s tied the USA, 1-1, in the opening game. Despite the result giving the Cubans a good chance of qualifying, seven players defected. They lost their next game, playing with 10 men, 2-0, to Honduras.
In Cuba, the last communist nation outside of eastern Asia, athletes are amateurs. Cuban soccer federation president Luis Hernandez explains that the national team players are university students. Hernandez also said that in an attempt to raise the level of Cuban soccer it is looking closely at how the USA accomplished its rise.
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," said 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."
In the opening game of the semifinal round of qualifying, Cuba lost, 3-1, to Trinidad & Tobago in Havana in front of only a couple thousand fans. Hernandez said that a much bigger crowd is expected for the game against the USA. Fanz said the team needs the support of the public.
In its final short game preview, Juventud Rebelde asked whether to expected "A Crazy Night" in which the Cubans pull off a historic win or tie.
FOUR-PENNY TICKETS. On the day before the game, workers are busy at the Pedro Marrero Stadium, which doubles as baseball field. Some are fixing the corrugated metal roof that was damaged by Hurricane Gustav. Others carry hundreds of plastic deck chairs into the stadium for the front rows.
The hardest workers are the two who cut the entire field's grass by pushing around the kind of two-stroke engine lawnmowers more appropriate for a backyard lawn. And what thanks do they get?
"The grass is a little long," said Bradley, who adds that it could use some watering because the soil is hard. Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, unaware of the mowing feat earlier in the day, says, "Hopefully they'll cut the grass tomorrow."
Tickets for the game cost one peso, the equivalent of four U.S. pennies. No tickets have been printed for the occasion. Stubs from a nearby basketball arena are used.
Three hours before game time, Bradley gets his wish and a torrential downpour soaks the field. Among the first group of fans to arrive are the family and friends of striker Alain Cervantes, whose mother Marina, smiles proudly when she's handed the one page photo-copied game program that had been handed out to the media and features her son.
A handful of Americans at the stadium cover their faces with bandanas because they've entered the country illegally and don't want to be recognized on broadcasts to the USA by ESPN Classic and Galavision.
Under the Trading With the Enemy Act, Americans aren't allowed to spend money in Cuba, which means they can't travel there unless they get special permission – such as a journalist's visa — from the U.S. Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control. The handful of American fans made it here by flying through a third country and must make sure their passport isn't stamped in Cuba and that they reveal no evidence of the visit when they return. The typical fine for an unauthorized Cuba visit is $7,500, although the OFAC threatens $250,000 and up to 10 years in prison.
One fan draped in an American flag who doesn't hide his face is Manuel Díaz Rodríguez, a Cuban who says simply that he loves American sports. In fact, it's landed him in jail because he hooked up a satellite antenna to watch Major League Baseball, NBA and other U.S. sports.
"I have no interest in politics for anything," he told Sports Illustrated's Wahl. "I just love sports."
(The Cuban government also restricts residential Internet access.)
By the time all the fans have shown up, the downpour has decreased to a drizzle and the winds have calmed. The 8,000 fans fill only half the stadium.
There is a running track around the field and there'll be no way the fans can be as intimidating for the USA as in other Concacaf qualifiers.
The Cuban fans applaud as the American players are introduced, giving their loudest welcome to Donovan. Midfielder Maurice Edu, who is misidentified by the P.A. man as the absent Freddy Adu, gets the second loudest ovation.
The USA is leading, 1-0, thanks to a Clint Dempsey goal with 10 minutes left when a few hundred fans begin streaming toward the exits. But the majority remain until the end as the Americans eke out their third straight road win of this qualifying campaign.
When the American players jog toward the stands and wave at the crowd, the Cuban fans explode in applause.
"It was more chill," said Dempsey in comparing the atmosphere to other road games. "Obviously, they were rooting for Cuba, but it wasn't as if they were hating us and wanted us to lose."
Dempsey, who has 45 caps, is asked if he could recall another time when U.S. players were cheered by opposing fans at an away game.
"No," he says. "It was definitely a surprise. I've never experienced that. Sometimes that doesn't even happen when we're playing at home."
(This article originally appeared in the Ocotober 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)