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Cuba embraces pro soccer after years out in the cold

Cuba embraces pro soccer after years out in the cold

Posted by PanamericanWorld on March 02, 2016

The obscurity of Mexican football's third division is not exactly the place to start a revolution but Cuban football fans are hoping one began there on Saturday.

When Cuban international Maykel Reyes played the second half for Cruz Azul Premier that day, he made history.

In front of 300 fans in the city of Texcoco, the 22-year-old became the first Cuban professional in more than half a century to play football with the backing of his government.

Since the concept of signing a professional sports contract was outlawed by Fidel Castro's communist regime in 1961, Cuban footballers who have played professionally have done so without the blessing of the country's football association.

"It is historic because of the motivational boost it will give to new generations of Cuban players," Mario Lara, a Cuban football historian, told CNN.

In years gone by, those Cubans who have yearned to make it as top-level footballers have resorted to all kinds of measures to escape the amateur league back home.

Since 1999, no fewer than 30 players have defected to the United States during away trips to North America on national team duty, from taking flight via the hotel fire escape to sneaking away on a pre-game shopping trip.

All took advantage of former U.S. President Bill Clinton's "wet foot, dry foot" immigration policy whereby any Cuban to set foot on American soil would be given asylum.

Among them were Osvaldo Alonso who plays for the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer (MLS) and Yordany Álvarez, who played for Real Salt Lake in the same league.

Two years after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Castro outlawed professional sport.

Moving the goalposts

But in 2013, things began to change. The problem was that Cuba's national side refuses to field those players who have defected.

However, a team currently lying 139th in the FIFA rankings needs to expose its players to foreign leagues to improve.

So as part of the Caribbean island's increasing westernization, regulations were changed three years ago to allow locals to sign professional sports contracts overseas -- just so long as taxes were paid back to the Cuban government on any income.

Nevertheless, the deal seemed too good to be true, which partly explains why no player had taken advantage of the amendment until now.

During the last transfer window, the capture of two reserve team players by Mexican top-flight club Cruz Azul hardly raised an eyebrow amidst the plethora of big-money signings elsewhere.

Yet the signing of Reyes and his compatriot, Abel Martínez, also 22, were among January's most significant.

Not only were they the first Cubans to sign fully professional sports contracts, but they did so with their nation's communist authorities fully behind them.

Martha Lidia Ruiz, the Director of International Relations at Cuba's government-backed National Institute of Sport and Recreation (INDER), described the deal as "an opening of a door to the world."

Luis Hernandez, president of the Cuban Soccer Federation, was quoted by Cuban state newspaper Granma as calling the contracts "historical" and hailing the fact that the pair were "playing on a team as prestigious as Cruz Azul."

Nonetheless, both players still faced difficulties in obtaining work visas and had to return to Cuba in order to process the lengthy applications.

The situation was made more complicated by the fact that Reyes found himself on INDER's list of indispensable sportspeople, which is designed to impede the departure of the nation's best players.

Eventually, after several weeks of delay, the pair obtained the necessary visas and returned to Mexico, where they would be eligible to play for their respective reserve teams, both of which play in Mexico's three-group third division.

Martínez has been included in the squad of Cruz Azul Hidalgo, which plays in Group 2, while Reyes has been added to the roster of Group 3 team Cruz Azul Premier.

Although Martínez did not get any minutes in Hidalgo's match on Sunday, his colleague Reyes played the final 35 minutes of Cruz Azul Premier's 2-0 defeat against Atlético Veracruz at Texcoco's Claudio Suárez Stadium the day before

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