Socializing through Soccer in Cuba

I came to Cuba with three languages to use: mediocre Spanish, pretty good dancing, and soccer.

Alli soccer

After my first game with Cubans it became blatantly clear that my soccer skills, though they would only pass at a third tier pick-up game in the States, were to become the most valuable language of the three. Through soccer I’ve made friends with other extranjeros (foreigners) and Cubans with whom I spend nights learning the elusive tactics of dominoes, talking about the promise and perils of socialism, and the struggles of being poor a poor country. Practices and games exposed cultural details like Cuban’s unique sense of time, which always seems to run more than thirty minutes late, and a society steeped in sexism.

cuba flag soccer

I met the eight-person sport team for the facultad (department) of history, philosophy, and sociology through Darienny, la jefe (head) of the facultad’s female sport team and part organizer of the Juegos Caribes (Caribbean Games), the Olympic-like tournament between all of the departments. I say sport team because, in reality, there’s a group of the same ten girls who play all of the sports – softball, track, indoor soccer, basketball, etc – in each facultad. The culture of female athletes is practically non-existent and shrouded in a veil of machismo almost as thick as the exhaust that comes out of Habana’s 50 year-old Ford Thunderbirds. Despite this difficulty, and to our expectation and delight, our facultad’s team, featuring us two yumas (extranjera/gringa), won for women’s indoor soccer. The most ironically unsurprising part was the profuse gracias we seven players gave to our coaches; three men who also played soccer for the facultad. Their roles were to organize and lead practices and tell us what our game lacked, because, after all, they know real soccer since they play on the outdoor grass field, with full nets and harsh sun and a complete eleven-person team. The boys’ team is self-coached.

Despite my eye rolling at the inequality between men and women’s sports, I owe more smiles than wrinkled brows to my Cuban soccer team. The girls have inadvertently taught me more about cultural slang, gestures and interpersonal interactions through our shared language on the field than I could learn in any broken Spanish conversation with a classmate. They’ve been sweet to invite me over for drinks and fried plantains after we won 7-0 and real enough to make me feel utterly uncomfortable pointing out “ella no entiende nada,” she doesn’t understand anything, as I’m standing at their side.

If playing years of soccer in the states has given me anything to use in Cuba, it’s not only the capacity to communicate in an unspoken language, but to have patience, humility and ganas when searching for the goal.

Allie O’Brien is from the University of California, Berkeley and is participating in the Cuban and Caribbean Studies program in Havana, Cuba.

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