New York Cosmos to play in Cuba as Part of ‘football diplomacy’

Brazilian football legend Pele (R) arrives with the  New York Cosmos at Jose Marti Airport on May 31, 2015 in Havana, Cuba.  The New York Cosmos will kick off a new era in sporting relations between the United States and Cuba on JUne 2, 2015 when they become the first American sports team in 16 years to play in Cuba.    AFP PHOTO / YAMIL LAGE        (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

Brazilian football legend Pele (R) arrives with the New York Cosmos at Jose Marti Airport on May 31, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. The New York Cosmos will kick off a new era in sporting relations between the United States and Cuba on JUne 2, 2015 when they become the first American sports team in 16 years to play in Cuba. AFP PHOTO / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

HAVANA, June 1  (AFP)  A blizzard of camera flashbulbs from local media and fans greeted a Cosmos delegation led by Brazilian legend Pele as the team touched down in Havana on a private charter flight.

Former Cosmos star Pele, who has battled a series of health problems in recent months, was mobbed by well-wishers before being whisked through security with the rest of the squad.

The exhibition match against the Cuban national team at the Pedro Marrero Stadium reflects the rapidly thawing ties between the United States and Cuba.

Moves to normalise relations after a bitter five-decade schism began last year when the two nations announced a historic rapprochement.

The diplomatic milestone has already shown several signs of extending into the sporting arena.

Cuban officials announced last week that the Baltimore Orioles baseball team – the last professional US team to play in Cuba back in 1999 – would return later this year to play against the Cuban national team.

Earlier in May, Cuba’s state-controlled television also took the unprecedented step of televising a Major League Baseball game involving a Cuban player, Kendrys Morales, in the Kansas City Royals game with the Texas Rangers.

It was the first time Cuba had screened a match involving one of its legion of MLB players, who are, officially at least, barred from playing in the United States and often portrayed as “deserters.”

Planning for the match began earlier this year, when the Cosmos first sounded out officials in the US and Cuba about the possibility of organising a game.

The project gathered pace when Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese travelled to Jamaica in January and met Cuban officials on the sidelines of regional qualifiers for the Under-20 World Cup.

“I had the chance to come to the president of the Cuban national federation, I said ‘We would like to play a match against you’. At the beginning, he said ‘Okay, let’s talk about it. Where are you coming from?’

“I said ‘New York, and we are the New York Cosmos.’ His eyes opened up.”

For the Cosmos, the game is in keeping with the team’s evocative history, an exotic nod to its famous 1970s heyday when it lit up the North American Soccer League with stars such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia.

Though the Cosmos do not play in the biggest US league, Major League Soccer, competing instead in a resurrected NASL, it remains one of the most globally recognised brands in US football, a testament to the club’s glittering history and willingness to take its show on the road.

It has played friendlies in Hong Kong and El Salvador already this year; Cuba will be the 42nd country the team has visited.

“No other team, past or present, gets close,” said Cosmos chairman Seamus O’Brien. “The club has a history of travelling overseas, opening doors.
“This happened naturally, very quickly. There was instant reciprocity from both sides, wanting to do the game.”