HAVANA — Every recess, Gabriela Alfonso Cabrera would watch the boys play soccer out of the corner of her eye.
She was so enthralled by the game that she finally approached her fifth-grade teacher, who frowned and reminded Gabriela she was a girl.
“I wanted to play, but they wouldn’t let me play at school because what if I got hurt and started to cry,” she recalled adults telling her.
Now 14, Gabriela sometimes is still the only girl playing alongside boys who are bigger and stronger than her, but she is not quitting after waiting four years to share a field with them.
She is one of the hundreds of players that coaches across Cuba are training as part of a newly launched program to elevate the soccer’s profile and status in a country that last qualified for the men’s World Cup in 1938, losing to Sweden 8-0 in the quarterfinals.
An initial group of 16 coaches was recently trained by international officials from FIFA, the Switzerland-based governing body of the sport, with the aim of building Cuba’s next generation of soccer players on an island long known for its baseball and boxing superstars.
Those coaches also will be responsible for training more than 1,500 other coaches across the island in the upcoming months. The aim is for Cuba to qualify for the World Cup in the next decade, something it hasn’t achieved in nearly a century.
“We hope to make it,” said soccer coach Héctor Noa Cuadro, who began playing at the age of 13 in the province of Guantánamo after seeing Argentina win the World Cup in 1978.
He said young Cuban soccer players have good physical strength but need to improve their technical abilities, including how to dribble the ball, use passing combinations between two or more players and sharpen their shooting techniques.
On a recent morning, Cuadro stood on the sidelines at the Pedro Marrero National Soccer Stadium in Havana and scrutinized the moves of more than a dozen young players, nearly all boys except for Alfonso, the eighth-grade girl, and her twin sister.
“That’s it! Let’s move! Look alive!!” various coaches yelled as the players scrimmaged in green and bright orange vests.
The objective that day was for players to develop their offensive game by organizing attacks and penetrating through defenses.
Reniel Bonora, who has coached the under-20 men’s team, looked on with approval as he spoke about the challenges of transforming soccer into a popular sport in Cuba despite the U.S. embargo, a lack of resources and an economic crisis that has led to food shortages.
A couple of years ago, Bonora said he opened two factories to produce cleats and balls for the local women’s team he coached because he didn’t want to lose talented players due to a lack of equipment.
Bonora, who chose a career in soccer over being a professional chess player, also noted that there’s no money for Cuban club teams to fly elsewhere to play opponents in games that would help improve their skills.
“These are the things that are limiting us,” said Bonora, adding that Cubans have been forced to become incredibly resourceful to create things similar to plastic cones and other equipment used in practice.
The situation has prompted well-known Cuban soccer players to defect during regional tournaments, which has made it even harder to build a national team as talent drains from an island that FIFA currently ranks 167th out of 211 countries. Many have joined teams in the United States in the past two decades, including midfielders Osvaldo Alonso with Atlanta United FC and Maikel Chang with Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer.
At one point, Cuba’s entire national team left the island to play in Germany after signing a six-month contract with Bonner SC, a fourth-division club, in January 1999. The group included 15 players, two coaches, an interpreter, a physiotherapist and a cook.
Cuba’s men’s team-best ranking was No. 46 in 2006, only to drop to its worst ranking of No. 182 in 2018. Meanwhile, the women’s team is ranked 97th out of 185 countries. The recently trained coaches would like to see Cuba once again in double-digits, although such goals were not important to those playing soccer in a rundown public park several blocks away.
“For me, playing is more important than winning,” 9-year-old Cristian Montes de Oca Peña said.
More than a dozen young boys surrounding him agreed before they rushed off to continue their game.