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U.S. makes a rare soccer trip to Cuba

Americans are favored in World Cup qualifier at Havana, the first matchup on the island in 61 years, but the natives are fired up.

September 06, 2008|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

Sixty-one years have slipped by since the one and only time the United States played Cuba in a soccer match on Cuban soil.

Tonight, the two countries square off again, at crumbling Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana in a regional qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The Americans, who are favored to win by a comfortable margin -- and who hope to make up for the 5-2 defeat in 1947 -- arrived by charter aircraft Thursday amid considerable interest from local media and fans.

Cuba is more about baseball than soccer, but the presence of an American team in a country that Americans by law are restricted from visiting is a novelty, and a capacity crowd is expected.

It helps, of course, that admission to the match (5 p.m., ESPN Classic and Galavision) is one peso (four cents) for locals and that the government is laying on free transportation and admission for students wanting to cheer on the home side.

"Cuba-U.S. is always a classic in any sport," Cuba goalkeeper Odelin Molina told the Associated Press. "The fans will be excited to have a World Cup team here, but the fact that it's the United States makes it so much more exciting."

The U.S. and Trinidad and Tobago, who play each other Wednesday in Bridgeview, Ill., are vying for first place in a four-team qualifying group that also includes Guatemala.

In the previous round of matches, the U.S. won, 1-0, in Guatemala City, and Trinidad and Tobago rolled over Cuba, 3-1, in Havana. Coach Bob Bradley's Americans are expected to ease past the Cubans.

But the Guatemalans will be up against it today when they travel to Port of Spain to play Trinidad and Tobago.

"For us, it's going to be like a final," said former Galaxy and now Toronto FC striker Carlos Ruiz, who plays for Guatemala. "We have to win or tie that game. It's the only chance we have to get to the next round."

The top two teams from each of three groups will advance to the final World Cup qualifying round in 2009.

The U.S. is not looking beyond tonight.

"I'm sure we will look back on this and say that was really cool," defender Carlos Bocanegra told Reuters. "We got to go to Cuba and play down there and no one else has done that."

The game is one of 50 World Cup qualifying matches being played around the globe today, with another 11 set for Sunday.

Mexico is at home against Jamaica after the countries agreed to switch their home and home series following hurricane damage in Kingston.

Elsewhere, England, with the Galaxy's David Beckham in tow, plays Andorra in Barcelona while worrying more about Wednesday's game at Croatia; World Cup holder Italy also takes on a minnow when it plays Cyprus at Larnaca, and European champion Spain, now ranked No. 1 in the world, tries to extend its 23-game unbeaten streak when it plays host to Bosnia-Herzegovina in Murcia.

Argentina plays Paraguay in Buenos Aires in a clash between South America's current leader and runner-up; Brazil, which is a lowly fifth, travels to Chile on Sunday and probably needs to win to save Coach Dunga's job.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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