Six weeks before Fidel Castro died, a powerful US squad landed in Havana. At the helm of the Americans walked an honoured German veteran, Jürgen Klinsmann, who surrounded himself with two dozen of his best troopers. Twelve of his men, the elite of this group, had flown from Europe to accomplish one of the last diplomatic missions of the Obama era: to face Cuba in the first friendly game between the two nations since Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and the Castro brothers topped the US-backed Batista regime.

The situation was so delicate that Klinsmann and his men were called to a briefing with a White House advisor before they departed from Florida. A former Cuban citizen, professor at Harvard University, this advisor talked to them at length about the politics, history and people’s beliefs in the island. The unnamed counsellor told them tales of growing up next to Estadio Pedro Marrero, home of the football national team, and how he slipped away to the stadium as often as he could to catch a glimpse of the games. The older he got, he said, the more insignificant football became in the country. After the revolution, it was almost reduced to a clandestine sport.

However, when Team USA set foot on the pitch on 7 October 2016 the stands were teeming with people. Chants of “Cuba! Cuba!” welcomed them to Havana. Altidore, Johnson, Brooks, Cameron and the rest of squad were unimpressed. White House intelligence had foreseen this and the advisor went through it during the briefing: the Cuban government was going to bring schoolchildren to the game, all of them in uniform and all of them cheering with one voice, he said. In any other place in the world it would have been a blessing for the kids, but, in the last days of Castro, attendance at this kind of event was a patriotic duty. It is mandatory for them to go, explained the Cuban-American expert. He was spot on. On the ideological side, however, his analysis was not so bright. “He told us that Cuba is a communist country and that Cubans want to get to the US to get freedom; so, when they arrive, they don’t know what to do because they have been shut down by the government for so long,” remembered Geoff Cameron, the hefty 

US defender who plays for Stoke City. 

Aware of the seriousness of their mission, the USA bravely flew to Cuba through the last breaths of hurricane Matthew. The winds had left a trail of devastation across the Caribbean and the storm was aiming at the shores of Florida and South Carolina when they landed in Havana. Most of the young players were excited about the trip. Cuba, in the imagery of many Americans, has an aura of isolation and mystery. An embargo still bars US citizens from visiting the island for tourism. The travel restriction dates back from 1963, when the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union reached its peak: the Americans had deployed intermediate-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in Turkey, about 1,700km from Moscow, to which the Soviet politburo reacted by building missile launch facilities in Cuba, at a similar distance from Washington DC. The world stood still for seven days when the US navy established a blockade to prevent the weapons from reaching the new Cuban silos. US ships and Soviet submarines played cat and mouse for more than a week, armed with an apocalyptic arsenal. It was the closest the planet has ever been to a full-scale thermonuclear war. Finally, John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev came to their senses and negotiated a scale back of the arms race. The deal opened a hotline between Washington and Moscow: the famous “red telephone”. Three months later, Washington took its vengeance against the Castro regime and Kennedy imposed travel restrictions to the island without much of an international uproar. 

On the plane to Cuba, Cameron was one of the players who had high expectations and Havana didn’t let him down. Living in the UK since 2012 had broadened his mind from his early career in New England. “Travelling abroad makes you a better person, you become open to diverse cultures and perspectives,” he said. He had always felt attracted by Cuba; being barred from visiting, he had approached the island through popular culture. “I had seen Cuba through movies,” he said, “so I had the idea that there was a big dancing culture. It was exactly like that. Every single night, outside the hotel, there were groups of people dancing, singing and having a good time. You looked at them and they were happy, grateful for what they are.” The squad strolled around Old Havana dumbfounded by the vintage cars and the grand colonial buildings. Among marble sculptures outlined by gold and 1950s Buicks and Chevies rolling on dirt roads, kids in football jerseys swirled around the players. They made jokes and asked for pictures and autographs. The White House advisor had encouraged them to give away some of their kit to Cuban children. Cameron handed over his training top. “At first, we were sceptical about walking down some alleys,” he said, “but everybody was super nice and friendly. We saw many Premier League jerseys, Barcelona’s, Real Madrid’s…” 

It was only for the last ten years of Castro’s reign that international football was regularly broadcast to a public audience. Before that, it was regarded with suspicion: a deviation from the norm of baseball and boxing, an abnormality like Hollywood movies, French poetry, modern literature or rock and roll. Today, football is undeniably on the rise. Kids play it on the streets while their grandparents watch baseball at home. It’s the battle of the new versus the old, a conflict that permeates every aspect of Cuban life and scares the gerontocratic government. The boom of footballs bouncing off walls send shivers down the spine of decrepit generals on the island. And the more time anyone spends in Cuba and the more barrios they discover, the more they will hear cries of “Gol!” around the corner. The US heard them too and Cameron, a few weeks later, explained it beautifully: “Whether they are able to watch it or not, you can see everywhere that Cubans love football.”

The first training session at Estadio Pedro Marrero broke the spell for the Americans. Before they left the hotel, the players were told to put on their kit; they were not going to be able to get changed at the stadium. In the southern limits of Playa, a municipality in Havana that stretches along the coast to the west of the island, the forefather of Caribbean stadiums looks over wood-and-stone colonial manors. Little to no important renovations have been done here since it was officially inaugurated for the II Central American and Caribbean Games in 1930. The dressing-rooms were closed when the US arrived and the sportsmen were not allowed either to take a shower or to go to the toilet. There was no running water. “That was when we realised how dangerous it was,” Cameron said. A little league team in Middle America would have a better pitch than the Cuba national football team. The turf was uneven, the grass was dry. A bad cut, a careless jump, and a sudden injury could put their careers at risk. “It was frustrating for us,” Cameron said. “Everyone was scared because of the field conditions. What would have happened if one of us got injured in the game and had to renegotiate his contract a few months later?” But the cliché, this time, pressed harder than ever: it was more than just a game. “It was special. It was something that the US and Cuba hadn’t done in a long time. It was about a relationship.”

The Cuban government saw the game as a chance to boost its image. TV stations broadcast the match worldwide and the Cuban team, made up almost entirely of amateurs, played with heart and dignity. But if the US players were frustrated by the conditions, the situation for the Cubans was no better. In the end, Pedro Marrero is their national stadium, their training ground, and their “home” when they play in Havana. A residence without proper toilets and a regular kitchen. A “pigsty”, as one of the players described it. Fifa announced in 2013 that US$5.1m had been invested in football development in Cuba since the turn of the century. But how this money is allocated is opaque, to say the least. In the 134 pages of the last Fifa Financial and Governance report, the expenses are not broken down by country, which makes it impossible to hold anyone accountable. Journalists maintain their silence, too. They are not able to ask or to write about it. A dictatorial regime, the Cuban government leaves no space for criticism in the national press.

We had to fly from Cuba to Florida to find someone with an open, questioning attitude. Surrounded by 1.2million fellow Cubans in the Greater Miami area, Mario Lara, a 45-year-old X-ray technician, is the voice of Cuban football in exile. “The government officials rule football with an iron fist and the press doesn’t have any information about it,” he said. “It looks as if football had become a matter of state importance.”

From a laptop in Miami, Mario Lara does what he was not allowed to do when he was living in Cuba: write about football. At first, Lara contributed from the US to an online forum on a Cuban website. He posted now and then on Cubans playing in the US leagues, but his comments were either blocked or censored. So he decided to start his own blog: el Blog del Futbol Cubano. His website has become a beacon for fans and footballers alike: he is the first to publish the national league results and the most informed to comment on the Cuban football association (AFC), but he is also a living encyclopaedia on the history of the sport. He is so passionate about it that he has written more than 3,500 blog entries since 2009. Mario Lara writes the best everyday chronicle of modern Cuban football and his audience is massive. “Joseph Blatter went to Cuba a few years ago to lay the first stone of a new artificial turf facility but nothing has been done ever since,” he said. “Nobody asks any question nor gives any explanation. Nobody knows where the money goes.” Former Fifa officials are under investigation in the US for misappropriation of funds in the Caribbean. The international governing body of football claims to be a victim of these wrongdoings but its lack of transparency doesn’t help its cause. 

In Cuba, the investment is nowhere to be seen. While the US players had to wait to go back to their hotel to take a shower after the training session, the Cubans were in a backyard, next to the stadium, using a hose to rinse themselves. When they play abroad, Lara says, conditions are no better. In the last few months, they have travelled by truck and canoe because there was no budget to rent a bus, they have slept on the floor and Cuban exiles have had to pay for their food. “Teams have no real kits in the national league,” said Lara. “Everybody wears donated equipment. The Cuban championship is the only one in the world where you can see, any given weekend, the French national team playing Real Madrid.” In theory, Fifa pretends to increase funding to the weakest federations so they can become more than also-rans in qualification tournaments. But far from bringing joy, the hand-outs generate suspicion among Cuban aficionados, since the men’s national team has surprisingly fallen 72 spots in the Fifa ranking since 2015. “It’s a scandal,” Lara said. “Our own officials might be trying to destroy Cuban football to get more money. We have traditionally been around number 100 and we are now at number 163, almost the worst position since they started keeping records.” Disgusted by this, many players have defected to the US in the last two international tournaments: the Concacaf Men’s Olympic Qualifying and the Gold Cup.

Lara lives Cuba’s losses with anguish. He suffers them more than anything else. Every time a player leaves the national team, he knows the power of the squad shrinks. That’s one of the reasons why he dreads defections. The other is that his blog helps encourage Cuban footballers to pursue an international career and the only way to achieve that is by leaving the island behind. More likely than not, defectors will reach out to him to find their way in the US and he has always given them a hand. He plays the role of journalist, agent and coach. He has even put together an amateur team, Fortuna SC, for players to keep practising when they arrive in Miami. His passion and dedication are beyond measure. 

Zico, Sócrates, Éder, and Falcão dragged Mario Lara into the world of football. It happened during the summer of 1982, when Spain hosted the World Cup. Cuban TV showed some of the games and, when the World Cup ended, Lara was already hooked. His only way to follow football was to tune in to Radio Exterior de España (a Spanish international radio station similar to BBC World Service). “The signal was very weak and my transistor radio only received it in one corner of my house,” he said.” I spent my weekends against that corner, Saturdays and Sundays, for many years. 

“People brought tapes of the games from abroad and they organised clandestine showings. When someone laid his hands on a World Soccer, or a Don Balón, he had to move them undercover.” It was the only way to do it, since the Cuban regime was obsessed with information control. “A time came,” Lara said, “when all these things were deemed ideological diversionism” – the term coined by Raúl Castro to define the habits and vices of bourgeoisie. Football and rock and roll were among these vices, but they were not alone. Homosexuality was another bourgeois vice, as well as fashion and the likes of the Beatles or Jean-Paul Sartre. Diversionists, in political speech, were labeled as wimps, weirdos and worms. “Even today, some journalists say that football is snobbish, that is has never been a truly Cuban sport,” Lara said. “They are wrong. People were so passionate about it that, in the 1930s, there were signs in Havana that asked people not to discuss football to avoid fights. In the 1940s it was bigger than baseball. And both Real Madrid and Atlético visited the island in the 1950s.”

The switch from football to baseball was ideological, too, and pushed by the revolutionaries. “In the 1960s, the USA was a terrible foe; they wanted to crush Cuba. Baseball was then promoted to become more than a sport: it was a weapon to vanquish our enemy. A baseball victory against the US was like winning a war. And since football was never important in the US, there was no need to fight the Americans on that terrain.” Football was, little by little, left aside.

Despite all the difficulties, the sport somehow remained popular in Cuba. In the 1970s, crowds filled 20,000-capacity baseball stadiums to attend football games. But at the end of 1980s a new policy dictated that football needed its own space and games were moved to improvised pitches, difficult to reach and without stands around them. In the 1990s, the national league was reduced to six teams playing in the same place for a few weeks. And, of course, it was not broadcast. “I remember that there was a TV program on Sundays,” Lara said, “the only one in which you could catch a match, and they showed five times in a row the same game from the Swedish league. It was a 0-0 in heavy snow. Soporific.”

The media have not been supportive of football’s rise. Back on the island, Dayan García, a tall and well-fed reporter for Cuba’s official newspaper Granma, has been a silent football fan since his childhood, but he only got to cover it professionally a few years ago. “I became a football aficionado in 1998,” he said. “Some World Cup games were shown on TV here. I rooted for France because I loved the elegance of Zidane.” Consequentially, when Juventus sold Zinédine Zidane to Real Madrid in 2001, García became a supporter of Real Madrid. “As a private person, I still love the club, especially now as Zidane is coaching them,” he said. “I am not saying this as a journalist though.” Of course, on the one hand there is the professional dictum of impartiality among journalists. In addition, there is also the meaning of Real Madrid in particular. Arguably no other club in the world, due to its history and name, is as representative of old colonialism, of close ties to government elites and of a connection with big business so intimate that money is always available. When football in Cuba had the image of an imperialistic and capitalistic sport, Real Madrid could have served as the prime example of why the sport was evil. “You cannot control who you fall in love with,” said García. And anyway, his biggest love is for Cuban football, Cuban players and the Cuban youth development system. Patriotism is a thing the members of García’s profession do not have to hide. At international tournaments, Cuban journalists wear the kit of the country’s national teams and during the Olympic Games in Rio 2016, many used Facebook as a tool to advertise the achievements of Cuban athletes.

It is only recently though, that football would also be advertised in accordance with its popularity. It even appears that decision-makers for a long time had no idea how popular the sport actually was. Less than ten years ago, García, who is now 32, was only trained to report on athletics, basketball, wrestling and baseball, those sports that promised Cuba most medals at international competitions. But as the internet became more common, people became better informed about football. In the newsrooms, journalists started to question whether, if Cubans went to internet hotspots and paid the fairly high rates, considering their low salaries, just to check the results of the games in European league, it mightn’t be worth showing more football on the mainstream media? García was one of the supporters of the idea. “Three years ago, we were still only showing a few games on TV and we barely wrote about it in Granma,” he remembers. “Today you can watch most games from la Liga, the Premier League, Serie A and Bundesliga every weekend.” And according to him, football is also growing more popular because Cuban football is improving bit by bit.

It needed to. In 2008, when the German club St Pauli inaugurated a new stand at its notoriously shabby stadium, it was decided that their first game in front of it would be a friendly against Cuba. At the Millerntor stadium, fans often wave flags printed with the iconic portrait of Che Guevara, while the beer outlets and toilet walls are dotted with stickers bearing his image. St Pauli, known for their alternative-left political stance, are popular for their ideals rather than their playing quality1. In as much as European professional football can have any parallels with a Communist regime, St Pauli and Cuba do share common ground. Both promote their own reputation as an underdog and are despised by conservatives. 

The Cuba national team went to St Pauli with high hopes. During a pre-season training camp three years earlier, the sides had played each other twice on Cuban soil. St Pauli had won the first encounter 3-2, but Cuba hit back in the second, winning 3-1. As the teams walked out at the Millerntor to the sound of ADCD’s “Hell’s Bells”, the Cubans seemed already to sense an infernal defeat. An anthem was played out of respect for the Cuban visitors – “Hasta siempre, comandante” which could indeed be called Cuba’s signature song. Composed by Carlos Puebla in 1965, six years into the Cuban revolution, the piece is a melancholic ode to Guevara written as after he had left Cuba to foment revolution in the Congo and two years before his death in Bolivia. Around 17,000 spectators listened and watched as 11 Cuban players on the pitch, heads lifted to the sky, sang those lyrics full of agony and loving pain to a Caribbean flow:

“Seguiremos adelante

como junto a ti seguimos

y con Fidel te decimos:

¡Hasta siempre, Comandante!”

“We will carry on

as we did along with you

and with Fidel we say to you:

Until forever, Comandante!”

But in a stadium where it was the opponents’ supporters who were waving the Che banners, the guerrilla spirit would not get the Cubans very far. St Pauli went ahead after six minutes, doubled their lead after 32 and were 4-0 up after 62. Less than a kilometre from the stadium, Cubans teach salsa lessons in the night clubs of the Reeperbahn. The image of Cuba may be of fiery eroticism but the national side demonstrated little of that. Their football was worked rather than played, they were more like interns than specialists. Those who had grown up in East Germany were reminded of an inefficient state-run economy by the Cuban kit, a one-size-must-fit-all solution. The taller team members wore their jerseys as stretch shirts, while the shorter and skinnier players seemed to be wearing XXXL. After 90 minutes, the Cuban side, supposedly aiming at qualification for the World Cup 2010, had conceded seven goals against an average German second-division team and had not come close to scoring one.

In Havana, the 15-year-old Abel ‘Belo’ Martínez did not even know that crushing defeat had happened. Embarrassing news about the fatherland got less attention than those feeding national pride. But for him, at that point already a promising talent, such news would have encouraged him. “Whenever I heard about how our football was doing, I felt that one day I may be able to help,” he said. Martínez was born in 1993, one year after Fidel Castro had initiated the Período Especial – literally ‘extraordinary period’ but essentially a euphemism for the period of economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. An outsider through his choice of sport, Martínez was a child who refused to acknowledge his low odds of making it big. In Havana’s Alfredo Miguel Aguayo school in the Santos Suarez district, little Belo’s friends would mostly play baseball. “I had tried judo, swimming, athletics and also baseball,” he said. “But football was it for me.” It did not appear a wise choice. Cuba’s economy shrank by about a third in the three years from 1990. Austerity measures enacted in the Período Especial meant that food was rationed. While sport always had a high status, what funds were still available went to those disciplines that were already established.

And that did not include football. “We did not have very good facilities really,” Belo said. “A lot of kids enjoyed playing, so we teamed up on the street after class.” But for more youngsters to take it on seriously, the schools lacked not just football boots, jerseys or the basic coaching know-how, but also proper pitches and enough of the most basic tool – footballs. “It was enough for us,” Belo said. From the first day he played a proper game, he claims, he knew that as a man he wanted to play for Cuba. A fast and physical midfielder, he got his chance. After being selected for the provincial team playing for Havana against other regions, Belo soon made it to the national ranks. His first trip abroad, thanks to football, took him to Turkey in 2013, after his side had become the first Cuba Under-20 team to qualify for the World Cup. There, they scored one goal and conceded ten, losing against South Korea, Nigeria and Portugal. But it was a start, perhaps the beginning of something. The year after, that same generation secured the bronze medal in the Mexican city Veracruz. That was only at the Central American and Caribbean Games, but the success did raise some eyebrows in other countries. In the semi-final, Mexico, Olympic gold medal winners at London in 2012, beat the Cubans only after penalties. 

By then, travelling abroad for football no longer seemed that special for Martínez, life in Mexico even less so. His performances at the Under-20 World Cup in Turkey had impressed Mexican agents, who soon contacted the AFC to ask to sign him. Some time later, Belo and his compatriot Maykel Reyes walked into the main office of central Havana’s Ciudad Deportiva facility, where various sports governing bodies are located in cement structures from the late 1950s. Under the supervision of government representatives, the two players became the first two Cuban footballers to sign a contract with a foreign club, both transferring to Mexico’s first division team Cruz Azul. “My life totally changed,” said Martínez, who is now 23. “I was living by myself for the first time, in a country that I am still getting to know and is completely different from Cuba.” 

For now, Belo is a reserve and his quest to become a star might have suffered from over-motivation. In late 2016, he failed a drugs test during a trip of Cuba’s national team to Canada. Although Belo insists that cannot have been a fault of his own making, he is now banned from football for two years. And yet, he remains a footballing hero at home – in part because domestic media reported little about the case. “One day, I will return to Cuba and help build up our sport even more,” he said. “Even now, there is so much talent in my country that is not properly trained and looked after.” And if effective youth development is tough in the country itself at the moment, Martínez has a recipe for quick success: “More players should be allowed to play for clubs abroad. The technical, tactical and even mental level is higher than at home. We can only profit from international experience.”

For Martínez, who is living his dream, this is a statement easy to make. Others have a harder time. Rolando Ameneiro, a lawyer and agent for the AFC, said after Belo’s signing that, “We were looking for ways of how to transfer players abroad for about two years. The regulation in Cuba now allows for international transfers, but we need to ensure their protection in legal terms.” Ameneiro did not mention the specifics of what legal protection means. Neither did Belo, who is reluctant to say whether with his higher salary in Mexico he is supporting his family at home, though this would fit a typical pattern. The terms of the contract, and the share the government as a key negotiator takes from it, are unknown. On the other hand, he admits that the biggest reason more Cuban footballers have been signed by foreign clubs are such legal concerns. “The authorities want to be well-prepared when they negotiate with foreign clubs,” Ameneiro said. The television programme Cuba Hoy called Reyes and Belos “the first Cubans to sign with foreign clubs” and described the transfers as “the biggest opportunities in their lives as athletes because they may be paving the way for future signings.”

In fact, Belo and Reyes were not the very first, and most football lovers in Cuba will know that. A sizeable number of players had turned professional before them, but instead of signing a contract at the Ciudad Deportiva, under the supervision of the sport’s governing bodies, they just fled the country. One of the most notorious cases is that of Ariel Martínez, nicknamed ‘la Isla’ (the Island), or, as journalists used to call him, ‘the Messi of Cuba’. 

La Isla was Cuba´s number 10 and one of the squad’s top scorers. His style is that of a classic trequartista: neither fast nor strong, but creative and skillful. He did it all with Cuba: toured Germany and played at the Millerntor, visited Spain for a friendly game against Indonesia, took part in four Gold Cups. With 50 caps and 11 goals, he was an idol on the island. At least until he defected, in the summer of 2015. The Cuba team was in Chicago, struggling in the Concacaf Gold Cup. They’d lost 6-0 against Mexico and 2-0 against Trinidad and Tobago. On top of that, three of the strongest players had fled before they took the field against Guatemala in the last game of the group stage. Ariel Martínez stayed to play one of his best games, providing an assist to Maykel Reyes and helping the squad reach the quarter-final – a victory in itself. “The Gold Cup is our World Cup,” la Isla explained from his house in Miami. It was the third time the Gold Cup’s history that Cuba had got beyond the group stage.

On the bus trip back to the hotel, everybody thought that the emotion of reaching the quarter-final had got to la Isla. He couldn’t stop crying. When the squad arrived at the car-park of their hotel, he stood up on the bus, hugged his coach with all his strength and ran away. “I knew I had to do it and, after the second game, I was determined to go ahead,” he recalled. “In the end, you are going to be considered a traitor, but if I was going to defect I wanted to do it as a man. So I waited to the last game and I qualified the team.” A few days later he was in Miami.

Mario Lara was coaching a game of Fortuna SC when la Isla, the idol of Cuban football, came up to him on the sidelines. “He approached me,” said Lara, “and explained everything to me: ‘These people had forgotten about me. I had to think about my career.’ Many teams were interested in Ariel Martínez. He was the main figure of the national team, with international experience and 50 caps, but they didn’t let him out.”

“For many years, I couldn’t help but to compare myself with other players that I saw on TV,” said Ariel Martínez, now in the years of his career. “I asked myself: why can’t I do the same thing?” Several clubs wanted to take him on, from Brazil and the US, but Cuba wouldn’t help with permits for footballers yet. The cases of Maykel Reyes and Belo Martínez have changed that dynamic recently, but it is too late for many players. La Isla, the absolute star, had been preparing his mother for many months before he finally left. Years will go by before he is allowed back in Cuba. His family won’t have the chance to visit him either.

On 7 October 2016, Ariel Martínez arrived at home in Miami eager to turn on his TV. His former teammates were playing the US in Havana, something he could never do. “I was very happy,” he said. “Every time Cuba play a game, I am with them.” 

Geoff Cameron was on the pitch. “It wasn’t the prettiest game,” he said. “They had a little bit of an advantage: they were used to the heat, they were used to the ground, we came from all over the world, it rained hard for 20 minutes… I am making no excuses, because we did whatever we could and sometimes you have to play ugly to win.”

Many Cuban players would have loved to be under the heat, on the uneven turf of Pedro Marrero, coming from all over the world to defend the Cuban goal against the US, but they were denied the chance. Most of them watched the game on TV. In the stadium, on the same day that the Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and a day after António Guterres became UN Secretary General, dozens of blonde oversized Americans, in star-spangled socks and t-shirts, mingled with young Cubans fanning themselves in the stands. Flags waved, next to each other, after decades of barren enmity. At the end Cuba lost by an honourable 2-0; this was no repeat of the 7-0 humiliation in the Millerntor.

“My dream is to return to Cuba to play again with the national team,” said Ariel Martínez, fired up by the what he saw on TV. “But if I can’t do that, I just want to help in the growth of Cuban football.” Mario Lara shares his hope. “If the right time came, I would go back to the island to support football,” he said. “My wish is to see Cuban football in the place where it belongs and I am ready to play my part, to assist as little as I know and as much as I can.” 

From Florida, 180km from the island, both idol and fan say the same words: “Cuban football could always count on me.”