The New York Cosmos dominated Cuba 4-1 on Tuesday in a soccer friendly meant to promote better relations between the United States and Cuba and demonstrate that baseball-mad Cuba is also becoming a soccer nation.
International goodwill was on display as the U.S. flag was unfurled on the pitch and the U.S. national anthem played before the match, both rarities in Communist-governed Cuba.
But the Cuban national team disappointed against a club from the second-tier North American Soccer League, falling behind 4-0 in the first half on two goals by Lucky Mkosana and one each from Sebastian Guenzatti and Hagop Chirishian.
Cuba, which has not appeared in a World Cup since 1938, scored five minutes into the second half on a strike by Andy Baquero.
Raul, the former Real Madrid striker and Spain captain who is now the face of the Cosmos, went scoreless.
The Cosmos became the first U.S. professional sports team to visit Cuba since detente in December, when U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they would seek to restore diplomatic relations that were severed in 1961.
A daylong rain dissuaded many fans who left empty the uncovered sections of the 28,000-seat Pedro Marrero Stadium.
Those who showed were in a festive mood, starting with chants for Brazilian football great Pele when he appeared from a balcony before the match. Pele, 74, a star from the Cosmos teams of the 1970s, was on his first visit to Cuba.
Fans even cheered the prematch warm-ups, blowing horns and waving flags while cramped under a leaky corrugated metal roof on one side of stadium.
Baseball remains Cuba’s national sport but soccer has gained in popularity, as evidenced by multiplying contests on dusty pitches and a proliferation of Real Madrid and Barcelona jerseys.
“I want Cuba to win but I came to follow Raul, the mythical No. 7 from Madrid,” said Raydel Aguirre, a 23-year-old graphic designer who paid one peso ($0.05) for his ticket and was wearing the jersey of Real Madrid’s current No. 7, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Seated at midfield, Lionel Hernandez, 47, waved both Cuban and U.S. flags from the same staff. He considered the match, and the new U.S.-Cuban relations, to be momentous.
“Everything is advancing and this is part of it,” Hernandez said. “I’m not referring to the people because there were never any differences between us, but politically, yes, this is progress.”