SPORTS

New York Cosmos hit Havana for soccer match, first pro team to go since thaw

Only Nixon could go to China, the saying goes.

Well, the same might be said that only the New York Cosmos could go to Cuba.

Their history, combined with their present-day success, made them the logical choice to become the first American pro sports team to represent the United States in Havana since the thaw in relations between the countries and face off against the Cuban national team.

With one legend of the past and one of the present in tow, the Cosmos landed in this Caribbean country late Sunday night, causing a stir at José Martí International Airport.

Even before the plane touched down Cuban soil, a surreal ruckus took over the tarmac as the media, with its TV cameras in tow, chronicled the team's much-anticipated arrival.

The Cuban media descended on the team’s Miami Air flight 648 from New York City in a frenzy. Photographers took pictures of the North American Soccer League players as they descended, old-style down to the tarmac on a set of roll-up stairs.

Then the Cuban paparazzi followed the Cosmos into the terminal even before they had passed through immigration.

One journalist estimated that Cosmos head coach, Giovanni Savarese, was interviewed at least seven times before he boarded a bus for the team hotel.

In the long run, the final score at Estadio Pedro Marrero Tuesday night won't matter, although the Cosmos certainly can do their part in building a bridge between the two neighboring countries and long-time adversaries.

No one has to remind the Cosmos they are ambassadors – the first U.S. pro sports team to play in Cuba since President Obama announced his plan to normalize relations between the countries in December.

"We feel very privileged after so many years to come here to Cuba to unite people through the sport," Savarese said.

"I think sports can build many, many bridges. We feel that's definitely the case here. We have to enjoy the moment and unite the people through the game we're going to have here."

The players are here to make a statement as well. “That football and soccer can surpass everything," defender and team captain Carlos Mendes said.

That certainly wasn't lost on the Cubans.

"[Tuesday's] game is going to be good, and it's going to unite the people of the United States and Cuba," the local physical trainer Darien Díaz said during a break in practice.

The greatest star in New York Cosmos history – albeit the previous, 1970s incarnation of the franchise – Pelé, has been there and done that when it comes to mending fences between countries. His presence alone put two conflicts on the back-burner in 1969 – between the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Biafran war in Nigeria.

"Soccer will always get them together," he said during a press conference here Monday.

As for Raúl, the current squad’s Spanish star striker, he was pleasantly surprised with the warm reception he received from local soccer fans.

Many here have been captivated by the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona, and since Raúl once starred for Real, he is hero to many Cubans.

"I didn't expect it," he said. "I see there is passion about soccer in Cuba."

It's difficult to say how far this one exhibition match will move things along between the U.S. and Cuba. If it goes off without incident, it’ll be a bit like chicken soup – it certainly couldn't hurt.

But North American Soccer League commissioner Bill Peterson is promising that this game won't be a one-shot deal. He speculated that it could open the door for Cubans to play in his league, and coaching and game official exchanges between his league and the Caribbean nation.

"For us, it's a logical path," Peterson said. "We're in sports and the best way to start any relationship is with a match, and [the] match will be significant and historical."

Heck, that might be in an expansion team sometime in the future.

"With the changing relationships between the two countries and our presence here in the Caribbean, I've learned never to say never, but it's not something that either one of us would focus on today," he said. "But you never know."

In case you were wondering, the last Cuban pro team to play in an American-based sports league was the baseball Havana Sugar Kings, who played in the Triple-AAA International League until July 1960.

If ticket demand at Estadio Marrero on Tuesday was any indication, it could be a sellout of around 30,000.

When the Cosmos practiced inside the stadium, fans endured long lines to purchase tickets that cost literal pennies.  A capacity crowd would be a signal to other teams that visiting this country could be a profitable endeavor.

"We expect a lot more teams from the United States to come play," Raúl said. "We will be opening the door."