Schmuck: Not much Cuban flavor in game but still a taste of future friendship

The crowd that showed up for Saturday's CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match between the U.S. men's national team and Cuba was as one-sided as the final score.

M&T Bank Stadium was awash in American flags and all manner of flag-themed clothing and Team USA jerseys, but there was virtually no Cuban presence in the stands for the knockout game that ended up being a quick knockout.


None of this was exactly counterintuitive. The U.S. team was considered a heavy favorite to beat a Cuban team that came into the tournament 104th in the world rankings. And it's not like there's a big Cuban presence in the Baltimore/Washington area or any opportunity for actual Cuban soccer fans to travel to the United States for the game.

So this year's Gold Cup bore little resemblance to the event here two years ago that drew thousands of Central American fans for a similar soccer doubleheader that featured a more competitive matchup between the U.S. and El Salvador. No doubt, some fans were hoping for the same kind of atmosphere, particularly in light of the dramatic changes to the political relationship between the United States and Cuba that will culminate with the reopening of the Cuban Embassy in Washington on Monday.


"I would have expected to see more people wearing their jerseys," said Jeff Lewis of Aberdeen. "We're normalizing relations, so that should bring freedom to interact with them and with us."

That isn't going to happen overnight, of course. Cuba is a poor country and it will require internal political change to create the kind of economic prosperity necessary for regular folks to travel freely in the United States.

More attention is paid on this side of the Florida Straits to the baseball players who regularly escape to pursue the promise of a rich major league contract. Cuba obviously is not an international football power.

That much was made apparent very quickly by Team USA, which scored very early and very often to eliminate an undermanned Cuban squad that was never expected to get this far in the tournament. But every friendly sports competition between a U.S. and Cuban team represents another step toward truly normal relations between the two nations.

Baltimore already has played a bigger role than this in the attempt to join hands with the Cuban people. The Orioles traveled to Havana in 1999 for the first game of a home-and-home goodwill series against a team of Cuban All-Stars. The Orioles won that game, but the Cubans returned the favor at Oriole Park a couple of months later.

The four soccer players who have gone missing during the Gold Cup figure to join a long list of athletes who have defected during overseas competition. During the 1999 baseball visit, a pitching coach for the Cuban team asked for political asylum and six players missed the flight home after the game at Camden Yards, but they did rejoin their team.

Orioles ownership took a lot of heat from the Cuban exile community and drew even more a year later when then-general manager Syd Thrift told a reporter that the Orioles had a policy against signing Cuban defectors.

The first visit by a major league team in 40 years did not end up portending a breakthrough in the long diplomatic stalemate between the two countries, and it would be another 16 years before the Obama administration took the political leap to start the process of normalization.


It may be many more years before there is enough political and economic change in Cuba to turn an event like Saturday's game into a multicultural festival like the one that bubbled up around the game between the U.S. team and El Salvador at M&T Bank Stadium two years ago, but that now seems possible.

Ravens president Dick Cass, who has overseen the recent series of summer soccer events at the stadium, certainly thinks that day will come.

"I would hope and expect that 10 years from now, if we hosted the U.S. versus Cuba, we'd have thousands of Cuban fans here," he said.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at