Latin America & Caribbean

Euro 2012 football fever hits baseball-loving Cuba

Cubans watch a football game
Image caption Cubans now have the chance to watch major European games, some live

Baseball is Cuba's national sport. But a new craze is sweeping this island: football.

You are as likely to see a young Cuban in a replica football shirt as in a baseball top these days. Street kickabouts have become as common as children playing with a bat and ball.

"Support for football has grown a lot among young Cubans in recent years," says student Manuel Alejandro as he takes a break from his own game with friends on the Havana seafront.

"It's a football revolution," he adds. "There are more fans here every day."

This month, that is clearer than ever. Euro 2012 has had people glued to their TV sets across the island.

"We're not just following the championship, it has paralysed Cuba. All young Cubans are watching and they know every detail," says Carlos Mendez.

The taxi driver is head of Cuba's very own fan club for Spanish club Barcelona's star striker, Lionel Messi. His Havana home is plastered with pictures of the player.

It is illegal to have satellite TV at home here, but state TV is carrying the championship live and it is on screens in bars, homes, even supermarkets.

"Since they started showing football on TV here, support for the game has been growing. Now it is a passion," Carlos says.

Image caption Cuba's national side (here in white) currently ranks 145th out of 206

Baseball is on TV every day during the National Series. But it was not until 1998 that a football World Cup was screened live.

Now El Clasico - the Real Madrid-Barcelona clash in Spain - is shown live too, and one European league game is chosen for rebroadcast every week.

"If you can't see the game, you don't know if you like it!" explains Rafael Hernandez, another Messi - and Barcelona - fan.

"But now lots of people are switching from baseball to football," he says.

There are still problems: if state TV is not showing a "Barca" (Barcelona) match, he has to run around Havana's hotels trying to catch it on satellite. But at least he can now get in. Cubans were not allowed to enter hotels until 2008.

While passion for international football is mounting, the domestic game lags far behind.

Football enthusiasts know very little about Cuban league teams. Travelling between provinces to matches costs money and is complicated. There is little media coverage, and even the Cup final is not televised.

"I watch every Barcelona match, but I've never been to see Havana play," admits Carlos Mendez, and his Messi fan club friends all agree.

"I just don't follow them. It's not the same quality."

Poor facilities

Havana's main football stadium is a neglected, sorry-looking place, its facade faded and its rough pitch covered in long grass better suited to Sunday league football than international fixtures.

Cuba has not made it to a World Cup since 1938.

Still, when the national side took on Canada in a recent World Cup qualifier to try to change that, a few thousand hopeful fans turned out, faces painted, flags and hooters in hand.

Despite the home advantage of a scorching hot, 2pm kick-off, they lost.

In the stands, fans complained that baseball is the favoured sport of the revolution.

Fidel Castro is a big fan: he often used to pitch the ceremonial first ball in tournaments.

"We have more success in baseball and boxing. I think our footballers could to the same, they just need the opportunities," said Jose Gomez, wrapped in a Barcelona flag.

"And if they can't play in foreign leagues, they will never get better," he added.

Professional football, like all sport, was abolished in Cuba with the revolution.

"Our pitches are bad, there are no good trainers. The team has to take public transport while baseball players get cars," says another fan, Yosef Borraya.

"If one day they start getting results they'll suddenly get everything they need. But that's the wrong way round!" he complains.

Those in charge of the game here accept there are problems.

"Our football pitches and stadiums need improving for official competitions. And we need to work from the bottom up with young players," says Antonio Garces Segura, vice president of Cuba's Football Association.

But he expects work on a new, Fifa-funded synthetic pitch to be approved soon.

"If we don't get to this World Cup, there's 2018. We have to dream!"

'No football tradition'

Meantime, there is no denying Cuba's enduring passion for baseball.

Image caption Baseball is still entrenched as Cuba's national sport

Every day, a group of men lock horns in furious debate under the shade of palm-trees in a central Havana square.

It looks like a fight from a distance, with voices raised and arms waving wildly. But the men are discussing the latest game.

"There's no tradition of football here," one man explains, in a break in the shouting match. "We've been playing baseball for generations."

They say the sport runs in their blood.

But what if a big ball game and El Clasico match were both scheduled for the same day?

"People of my age would go to the baseball," says Gilberto, in his 60s. "But the young would watch the football," he laughs.

It is a big swing in allegiance.

Cuba's national sport still gets most of the official attention and funding.

But when it comes to luring fans, football has emerged as a strong competitor.

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