HAVANA — In a landmark act of sports diplomacy, soccer's New York Cosmos on Tuesday become the first U.S. professional team to play in Cuba since Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama announced their countries planned re-establishing diplomatic relations.
Baseball may be sport the two nations most share, but soccer's popularity is growing in both nations and Cuban officials said the friendly match against the country's national team is 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, businesspeople and athletes.
A group of retired NBA stars held a training camp for Cuban players in April and Cuban officials have said a Major League exhibition game is planned for the near future, although Major League 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 were training ahead of Tuesday afternoon's match at 30,000-seat Pedro Marrera stadium, which is to be televised nationally in Cuba.
They were accompanied by honorary president Pele, the legendary Brazilian star who played for the original Cosmos franchise as his career was ending. Asked about the bribery scandal that exploded last week in soccer's global governing body, he 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," he 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 the island's 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 moved to warm ties with Cuba and open 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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