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NYT: Baseball in Their Veins, but a New Ball at Their Feet

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    THE NEW YORK TIMES May 1, 2012 Baseball in Their Veins, but a New Ball at Their Feet By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD HAVANA — At dusk one recent night, under the
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2012
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      THE NEW YORK TIMES
      May 1, 2012
      Baseball in Their Veins, but a New Ball at Their Feet
      By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD

      HAVANA — At dusk one recent night, under the amber glow of streetlights in a gritty neighborhood, a ball took flight amid a gaggle of young boys. It was not hit by a bat. It did not fit comfortably in the palm of a hand. It was not, strikingly in a country that embraces "America's pastime" as its own, a baseball.

      This ball was kicked around in an impromptu game — a pair of old desks marked the goals — by Cuban youths who consider soccer their favorite sport.

      "We play after school, all day if we can," said Emanuel Fernández, 10, who minutes earlier had toasted a hard-earned goal with a cartwheel. "It's our game, fun and fast."

      Such a declaration would have once been heresy here. Baseball has long been considered as Cuban as hand-rolled cigars, regardless of the game's origin in a country that the government derisively calls "the empire." Fidel Castro is a known devotee of the sport and dabbled in it in his younger years. The Cuban national baseball team has won gold or silver in the past five Olympic Games, and several players have defected to play in the major leagues.

      Soccer has a less storied past. Cuba's lone World Cup appearance, in 1938, ended in a humiliating 8-0 loss to Sweden in the quarterfinals. Except for occasional flashes of strength regionally, Cuba's national team has dwelt in the cellar in world competition ever since.

      But in the past few years, soccer has made inroads here. After Cuban television broadcast the World Cup in 2010 and began showing more European matches, pickup games started sprouting across the island. Children are walking around with Messi jerseys (for Lionel Messi, the Argentine star) and those of other stars, and chanting allegiance to Real Madrid or Barcelona, whose rivalry is closely followed. Roars erupt from bars and apartments over a voice bellowing from the TV: Gooooool!

      The soccer frenzy has reached the point that a recent report on state television asked whether the passion for baseball was declining. And on Cubadebate, a government-controlled news site, a column by the sportswriter Michel Contreras this month declared the notion that Cuban baseball was on its deathbed "absurd."

      He suggested that the quality of Cuban baseball might have slipped somewhat, fueling interest in soccer, but he said there was room for both.

      "Those who try to dam back the most universal of games are wasting their time," he wrote, while "those who think Cuba will renounce baseball, the white globule with seams flowing through our veins, are seeing crocodiles in their soup."

      He added, "Nothing in the world, not even the voracious shark called soccer, is capable of eating our essence."

      Soccer, however, does have a few things going for it here.

      It is largely youths who are embracing it, giving it good odds for the future.

      And parents find it more economical, since it requires just a ball, as opposed to the glove, ball and bat needed for baseball. And even tight spaces can double as a field; in one park, a group of young players climbed onto the roof of a bathroom building when all the proper fields were full and began kicking a ball around.

      Nancy Gómez, watching her 9-year-old grandson practice with a team at a park, said: "Soccer is a good game because it's just a ball, nothing else. With one ball the children play all they want."

      She added, "With four or five children, they play, kicking the ball around."

      Her grandson, Fabio Zayas, said he favored the game because it was "very active and dynamic."

      More than a few fans, in fact, pointed out the speed of the game and the passing action, compared with the long innings of baseball, during which there can be more waiting around than actual action.

      Bars and restaurants showing games quickly fill up, as was the case last weekend when Real Madrid defeated Barcelona, 2-1, in one of the most-watched games worldwide.

      "It's the contrast between two big teams," said Carlos Menéndez, a server at El Aljibe, a popular state restaurant that regularly shows soccer. "That is very attractive to Cubans. We love competition."

      Naturally, there are some political overtones.

      Cuba's interest has coincided with a burst of soccer mania in Venezuela. The countries have close ties, and last summer President Hugo Chávez, while visiting Mr. Castro, watched the Copa America tournament with him and sent a Twitter message after a goal that said: "Watching the game here with Fidel. We will live! We will conquer!" (Venezuela defeated Chile, 2-1, in that match and eventually placed fourth.)

      With no professional sports in Cuba, the same yearning among athletes to defect and win big paychecks abroad tugs at the few soccer stars here. In March, Yosmel de Armas, a member of the Cuban national soccer team, disappeared before a game in Nashville and later surfaced in Miami asking for asylum. In 2008, several members of the squad defected in Tampa, Fla., during an Olympic qualifying tournament.

      Some people who were asked which sport truly represented Cuba emphatically declared baseball the "national sport" and left it at that, while others wondered if the government would tolerate any fading of baseball.

      "Among Cuban youths, devotion to soccer grows as enthusiasm for baseball decays. I wonder, what will happen?" the blogger Yoani Sánchez said on her Twitter account recently as she listened to cheers ring out from people watching the Spanish league match.

      But there is general agreement that while FIFA, soccer's world governing body, is working to improve fields and the quality of play here, Cuba is a long way from becoming a threat to the world soccer order.

      "Everyone who works also has to have dreams," said Antonio Garces Segura, vice president of the Cuba soccer federation. "We can dream that one day we could get to the World Cup, and why not win it?"

      Jose Goitia contributed reporting.
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