Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Cuba's Less Than Beautiful Game

How the state stops footballers from pursuing their dreams.
By Claudia Padrón Cueto
  • Football match between Cuba's national team and Cosmos club from NYC. (Photo: Courtesy of Play Off Magazine)
    Football match between Cuba's national team and Cosmos club from NYC. (Photo: Courtesy of Play Off Magazine)
  • Cuban team in Marrero Stadium, Havana. (Photo: Courtesy of Play Off Magazine)
    Cuban team in Marrero Stadium, Havana. (Photo: Courtesy of Play Off Magazine)
  • Cuban football fans. (Photo: Courtesy of Play Off Magazine)
    Cuban football fans. (Photo: Courtesy of Play Off Magazine)

As a young boy playing football on the streets of Havana without the right shoes or even the proper balls, Marcel Hernández fantasised about growing up to become a professional player. So when he received an offer to play in Argentina in 2012, it seemed like a dream come true.

But it’s no easy matter for Cuban footballers to pursue such dreams.

At home, even top players earn the equivalent of 40 US dollars per month and cannot make a living from their passion. As for playing abroad, the Cuban government used to ban their athletes from leaving the country legally. The only two options were to defect during a tournament or to leave the country like any other migrant, by applying for a passport and the so-called white card or exit visa.

The first option led to being labeled a deserter and the risk of being banned from returning to the country or from representing Cuba in international competitions. The second option involved a migration process that could take years and made it impossible to ever play for your country again.

Hernández did not want to pay the price of those two options and turned down the offer to play in Argentina.

A year later, in 2013, the National Institute of Sports (INDER) which oversees Cuban athletics, allowed players to sign to foreign clubs. However, it was not a simple process, involving a long series of bureaucratic paperwork that was incompatible with the breakneck speed of the global soccer market.

Hernández applied for his passport in 2014 but only received it nearly a year later. Given how short an athlete’s career can be, Hernández decided that he had no option but to leave without government permission. He began playing in the Bermudas, first division with the Greenbay Hoppers, then continued to the Dominican Republic. He is now one of the top players in Costa Rica.

Hernández’s story is far from an isolated case. In Cuba, those players who want to develop their careers have to dodge official paperwork and as a result many are prevented from playing with their national team or even returning to the country.

High performance athletes, like other professionals such as medical specialists, are regulated by the government. This means the state considers them to be essential for the country’s development, so their ability to obtain an ordinary passport is restricted. Most countries have autonomous soccer associations, but in Cuba the government controls the process.

Although the exit visa was abolished in 2013, if a Cuban player wants to sign with a foreign club, a recruitment request must first be sent to the Federation (AFC) and then reviewed by two INDER departments; the negotiation and the recruitment and foreign travel committees.

Finally, the INDER president - equivalent to the Secretary of Sports - has to give approval.

AFC lawyer Rolando Reynaldo explained that this “results in extended negotiation times”. It also violates FIFA regulations, as their statutes prohibit governments from managing their players’ careers. 

Although INDER has created a path to leave the country legally, results have been limited. Currently, only six soccer players play abroad with government authorisation. Of these only two, Yordan Santa Cruz and Daniel Luis Sáez, are star players.

Baseball was once the national sport and a symbol of the Cuban revolution. But in recent years, football has become ever more popular.

For instance, when the Real Madrid Foundation organized a workshop in Havana in 2016 with the famous Spanish player Emilio Butragueño, more than 100 children attended.

But despite the interest, the level of Cuban soccer remains low. Of the 211 federations in FIFA’s world ranking, Cuba is currently at 174. Although the Under 20’s category has qualified for several world championships, the senior team has not qualified since 1938. One of the main problems is that they play hardly any matches; last year the team only participated in three official games.

In 2017 only two Cuban players managed to join foreign teams. One was Daniel Luis Sáez, who arrived more than a month late to Atlántico FC in the Dominican Republic and thus missed the first game of an important tournament.

“With such long waiting times, you run the risk of the contracts getting canceled at the last minute and it discourages clubs from taking an interest in other players,” said Sáez. “In the end, Cuban soccer players are the ones who are affected; we can only become professional through the AFC.”

The other was Arichel Hernández, who received an offer to join Independiente FC La Chorrera in Panama in October 2017, but was only able to join the team in February 2018.

This delay resulted in Arichel missing the pre-season and six games, and the club’s managers considered canceling the transfer.

The Cuban authorities can also reject offers to sign a player, despite the player wanting to make the transfer.

That was the case with Yordan Santa Cruz, who received an offer from a Dominican club that would have covered his expenses and given him a monthly salary of 300 US dollars, almost ten times more than he earned in Cuba. However, his transfer was not approved.

In June 2018, the same thing happened to Andy Baquero. He received an offer to join Atlántico FC but was forced to finish the season in Cuba.

Atlántico FC president, Rubén García said, “Our solution has been to manage the contracts well in advance. It’s the only way to work with the bureaucracy on the island.”

Faced with these difficulties, many Cuban players have chosen to ignore the official process.

Roberto Peraza, a player from Havana signed in the Dominican Republic since 2017, preferred to handle his own transfer from Bauger FC to another Dominican club a few months ago.

With the league starting, it seemed unlikely that the Cuban authorities would finish the paperwork on time.

Having already lost a contract through such delays, the player said, “Either I did it myself or I’d lose this opportunity.”

This is not a simple decision to make, as evading the official process has a price. Peraza, currently a midfielder at the Dominican club Jarabacoa, cannot represent Cuba for the next two years because he was signed without permission.

Hernández may face a similar future. Now among Cuba’s best footballers, he plays with the Cartagines in Costa Rica’s first division and has scored 17 goals in the last 20 games.

According to a recent announcement in the Cuban press, Hernández would be invited to play with the national team. But a week a correction was published, clarifying that the AFC would not be calling on the athlete. No other explanation was offered.

Claudia Padron is an independent journalist based in Cuba.