Cuba – An Incentive
The reigning champions are Pillar del Rio from the province where traditional Havana cigars are made. On the day of the championship final against Villa Clara at the La Bombonera stadium in San Cristobal, 8,000 fans saw Reinier Alcantara, Cuba’s best-loved striker, score the winning goal.
In 1995 Cuba, the largest island in the Antilles, were in 175th place in the FIFA/ Coca-Cola World Ranking. After peaking at 46th thanks to their performance in the Digicel Caribbean Cup, Cuba are now ranked 64th, a tremendous achievement which makes them the fifth-placed nation from CONCACAF and puts them ahead of many teams with grand footballing traditions.
For many teams in the region, the Caribbean Cup is of vital importance, as it also serves as a qualifying competition for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which for many teams is like playing in the World Cup. This is certainly how the Gold Cup is perceived in Cuba, who in 2007 took part in the competition for the fourth time in succession (a Caribbean record) together with “giants” such as the USA, Mexico and Costa Rica. All Cubans play in their home country as amateurs and the national team can call them up whenever and for as long as its likes, giving it an advantage enjoyed by virtually no other national side in the world.
In the Caribbean qualifying round for the Olympic Games in Beijing, Cuba came top — ahead of Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago and Grenada — thus earning a place in the final qualifying round for the first time since 1984. Two of the eight countries in the final group will qualify for the men’s Olympic Football Tournament and it promises to be a stiff test for the team coached by Raul Gonzalez Triana. In any case, Cuba are certainly progressing: “These competitions give us the chance to test ourselves, they provide a yardstick for our progress,” explains the general secretary of the Cuban football association (AFC), Antonio Garces. This is backed up by Rufino Sotolongo, the coach of the women’s teams: “Here we have little opportunity to see women’s football and reaching a final round gives us the chance to keep on learning. The mere fact of featuring in the FIFA World Ranking is an incentive.”