HAVANA – For one day, the Cosmos will become more than just a soccer team. They hope they will become bridge builders between the United States and Cuba.
In the first professional sports event between the former adversaries since President Barack Obama announced his plan to normalize relations between the two countries in December, the Cosmos face Cuba in an international friendly at Pedro Marrero Stadium on Tuesday.
“We feel very privileged after so many years to come here to Cuba to unite people through the sport,” Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese said Monday night. “Sports can build many, many bridges. We feel that’s definitely the case here. We have to enjoy the moment and unite the people through the game.”
When the Cosmos’ charter landed Sunday night, they already caused a ruckus, not unlike what they did during their glory days in the 1970s and ’80s. Hordes of Cuban media and TV cameras descended on the team as the players walked off their plane before entering the Jose Marti Airport terminal.
Asked what type of statement that he felt the Cosmos wanted to make, captain and defender Carlos Mendes replied: “That football and soccer can surpass everything.”
Regardless of the final score, the game will lay the groundwork for future cooperation between the North American Soccer League and Cuba. That could include Cuban players performing in the NASL, sharing coaches and player development.
“For us, it’s a logical path,” NASL commissioner Bill Peterson said. “We’re in sports and the best way to start any relationship is with a match and [the] match will be significant and historical.”
Peterson left the door open to a possible expansion franchise here someday. “With the changing relationships between the two countries and our presence here in the Caribbean, I’ve learned never to say never, but it’s not something that either one of us would focus on today,” he said. “But you could never know.”
The last Cuban pro team to play in an American-based sports league was the baseball Havana Sugar Kings (International League), who played through July 1960.
Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony made the trip. Rumors have Anthony taking over the defunct NASL franchise in Puerto Rico. Anthony was unavailable for comment.
By MICHAEL LEWIS, Newsday
June 1, 2015