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2019 Women's World Cup

Cuba’s first taste of Women’s World Cup qualifying coincides with country’s deeper political changes

Photo: Asociación de Fútbol de Cuba

The Cuban women’s national team will make its debut in the Concacaf Women’s Championship on Friday. The two-week tournament features eight countries and serves as the North American qualifier for the 2019 World Cup. Underdogs like Cuba and Panama will battle it out with the big guns of Canada and the United States, respectively, for the coveted top three spots and a chance to punch their ticket to France next summer. (The fourth-place finisher will enter a playoff against Argentina for another spot.)

To get here, Cuba had to go through the gauntlet of Caribbean zone qualifying, beginning in early May. They launched their historic run by impressing in a group comprised of fellow relative women’s soccer minnows in the first phase. Topping the five-team field, Cuba for the first time earned an opportunity to face the stiffest competition in the region in the final qualifying round. Here, they picked up six points in four games, though one of their losses, a narrow 3-2 defeat to perennial Caribbean challengers Trinidad & Tobago, showed that this Cuban side could more than hold its own in tough tests.

Throughout their eight-game odyssey, Cuba exhibited their firepower, scoring 34 goals (an average of about four goals per game) and posted convincing wins against the Dominican Republic, Aruba, and Antigua & Barbados. Players such as María Pérez (nine goals in eight appearances) and Rachel Peláez (seven goals in eight appearances) demonstrated their talent along the way, flashing the shine of budding stars.

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Photo Copyright Hannah di Lorenzo for The Equalizer

Cuba’s maiden voyage in the tournament has all the attributes and feeling of a true debut. Their first appearance at H-E-B Park in Edinburg, Texas, will be enveloped in a mixture of mystery, excitement and hope. The national team’s ascension has taken place mostly in private, with very little being known about their inner workings. A cursory hunt on search engines returns only a few results: One or two pieces of footage on Youtube published by the federation of their opponents, empty player profiles, the team’s near-barren Wikipedia page links incorrectly to the wrong head coach. I received no response from the Asociación de Fútbol de Cuba, Cuban soccer’s governing body, when I reached out for this story nearly a month ago. Not a lot is known about their domestic league other than that these women are amateurs. This handful of disparate puzzle pieces makes it hard to conjure up an image of this group. There’s a lot we do not know.

Of course, some of the aforementioned characteristics are not unique to Cuban women’s soccer. A lot of female athletes who represent their countries are amateurs. Many are largely ignored by the media and a general public, which gravitate towards culturally-grounded, revenue-generating men’s sports. This leads to a dearth of available information. Many women’s team are also under-resourced (see the latest on the struggles of Puerto Rico, which missed out on advancing at the expense of Cuba).

However, for this group of Cuban women and their coaches, what differentiates them is the political, historical and social context in which they have developed and from which they emerge.

As one of the world’s last remaining Marxist-Leninist countries, Cuba has been an enigma at times tinted with fear, danger and suspicion. Hero-tyrant Fidel Castro is no longer in power, but the basis and legacy of his highly centralized economy and state socialist policies remain. The country is considered an authoritarian regime, with human rights abuse and repression continuing to be a concern until very recently. It can be rather difficult for Cubans to leave their country, requiring a national ID and a passport that can cost five months’ salary. Internet is also severely restricted on the island, with only a very small percentage of Cubans having access within the home.

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Photo: Erica McCaulley/Lewis Gettier

In recent years, under Raúl Castro, there has been a very gradual opening up of Cuba to the world. Once hostile Cuba-U.S. relations have improved since 2014, in a process known as the “Cuban Thaw.” Embassies have reopened, and the first direct commercial flight between the countries in over 50 years was re-established. Hints of a government willing to slightly loosen its firm grip can be seen in the seemingly small changes. Now, Cubans can buy DVD players, computers, and microwaves — items previously restricted by the state. When Castro stepped down from his post as president earlier this year, he called for term limits, another unprecedented reform. Under current president Miguel Díaz-Canel, there appear to be the inklings of democratic opportunity and institutions in the making.

One gets the feeling then that this debut for Cuba goes beyond sport. It does not seem a coincidence that the evolution of the women’s side has dovetailed with some of the recent developments on the island nation, namely the slow acceptance of globalization and a freer movement of peoples than before. Cuba may not drastically change its identity or composition any time soon, but, considering its past, the country has taken a significant step into the modern era. With that has come a trickle of ideas with the potential to invigorate, mold and lead to advancement. With that also comes achievements like the Cuba women’s national team qualifying for its first ever Concacaf Women’s Championship.

When the players begins their journey on American soil, they will have their own understanding of the headlines that will be generated and the greater narrative of their country that they represent. They will know of the opportunity to defect from their country, a chance that many athletes in their position have taken, including two female soccer players in 2012 during Olympic qualifying in Canada. The Cuba women’s national team will carry stories like these with them on this trip to the United States.

This is a team defined by more than defections and outsiders’ perceptions of their complicated history, however. They are women who are passionate and committed to their pursuit, who have already accomplished the incredible and are looking for more. Like those who abandoned their country, those who still reside within it, and even controversial figures of the past, they are dream-chasers at their core.

First, the team’s lofty goal was to make it out of Caribbean qualifying for the first time. Now, it is to make it to their first FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Developing behind the scenes over the past few years, the Cuban women’s national team has achieved new heights and is ready to test out a new ‘product’ in a way it never has before. When they step out onto the field to take on Costa Rica on Friday, the players will, for the first time in this environment, proudly don the crest of the “Leones del Caribe” (Lions of the Caribbean) on their chests. It is a symbol that has come to represent the Cuban peoples’ strength and ferocity throughout the country’s history, from the colonial period to the present day. That could not be more fitting for this team. It will signal their arrival on this grand stage: “We are here. Hear us roar”

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(Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

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