Young Cuban footballers dream of major tournaments in the United States | the wider picture

8-year-old Cuban Kevin Kindlan, a fast-paced Havana NCFL baseball player and teammate and first-team baseball player Leonie Venego, 7, both dream of stardom.

Kindelan says he wants to play for the Cuban National Baseball Club, but Venego, having regained his composure after a big swing and failure during a recent training session, admits he has set his sights on an even bigger prize.

. Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexander Menghini

Kendlan plays baseball in front of his house.

“I want to make it to the major leagues and be like Yuli Gouriel,” he said, referring to the first-star Cuban player on the Houston Astros, the U.S. baseball team, Cuba’s longtime rival to the north. .

Success in baseball, Cuba’s national time and favorite pursuit of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is increasingly measured outside its borders. This reflects a broader exodus of Cubans from the stagnant communist-run island wracked by social and economic crisis.

. Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexander Menghini

Kendlan gets on his father Luis Ramirez’s motorcycle to go to a baseball lesson.

The Cuban economy contracted 11% in 2020, and has only risen slightly since then, official figures show, as it was plagued by the pandemic and stifled by the United States’ Cold War-era embargo. Long queues of food, medicine and fuel are the norm, resulting in a nearly unprecedented mass exodus of more than 157,000 Cubans to the United States since October, according to the US Customs and Border Protection.

“In the past six years, the number of baseball players leaving the country has also tripled compared to the decade between 2000 and 2010,” said Francis Romero, a Cuban baseball expert and author of books who lives in Florida. “No Major League Baseball … could survive that.”

. Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexander Menghini

Kindlan was dressing his father, Luis Ramirez, 26, before attending a baseball class.

Romero told Reuters that many young players are no longer motivated by communist ideology or patriotism, a force that for decades helped propel Cubans to great achievements including baseball gold medals in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Athens in 2004.

“Players once waited a long time to emigrate, to prove themselves. Now they leave at 16 or 17 years old.

. Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexander Menghini

Children play baseball in a vacant lot.

“Many Cuban players are no longer allied with the government’s ideology or policies.”

Big league dreams

At Ponton Stadium in central Havana, with its muddy ground and grassy lines, some of Cuba’s youngest players train, take their first exciting swings and play their hand.

. Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexander Menghini

Kindelan plays baseball with friends in a vacant lot.

But no one – not even these children – is spared the impact of Cuba’s deep economic crisis – or the migration crisis, says youth coach Iracli Chirino, a former Cuban league player who started his career at Ponton.

“Here, we don’t have gloves, rackets, boots, or even balls to play with … and when we do, they are very expensive,” Chirino told Reuters on the sidelines of a late spring training session.

. Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexander Menghini

Children of a baseball team in central Havana listen to the instructions of a baseball coach during a game.

Chirino said the lack of supplies has prompted avid soccer players to take up the sport of less intense soccer, a favorite elsewhere in Latin America, or to dream of playing abroad from a younger age.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said. “We are losing our best footballers before they make it to the National Series.”

. Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexander Menghini

The kids of a baseball team in downtown Havana prepare to promote the Five-a-Party Champion after a game.

This is a bittersweet reality for coach Nicholas Reyes, 73, who has seen more than a dozen of his “graduates” sign contracts in leagues outside Cuba.

“They started with me and now they are in [U.S] The major tournaments. “It makes me proud,” he said.

. Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexander Menghini

Children talking before playing a baseball game.

But he admits that fame and fortune increasingly trump patriotism.

“When you played, it was not like that. You will never betray your country.”

stay at home

The continued flow of talent – including those who have left Cuba – continues to fuel hope for the future of Cuban baseball, Juan Reinaldo Perez, president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, told Reuters.

. Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexander Menghini

Bus driver Nestor Garcia, 57, is arguing with a neighbor while watching a baseball game at his house.

“We are a country with a tradition of baseball and this continues to grow,” he told Reuters.

He says Cuba’s limited resources are now focused on preventing young footballers from leaving.

. Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexander Menghini

A child watches a baseball game between Industriales and Artemisa at the Latin American Stadium.

In May, the Cuban Federation signed a deal with the World Baseball Softball Federation (WBSC) that formalizes the right of Cubans to contract with professional leagues around the world, without having to give up their homeland or citizenship.

. Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexander Menghini

Industrial baseball team member David Mina trains before a game at the Latin American Stadium.

A similar deal, signed with Major League Baseball in the United States in 2018, would have given Cubans the same right. After US President Donald Trump suspended it before it could be carried out, many Cubans with high aspirations in the league felt they had no choice but to leave.

The lack of such a deal remains a huge obstacle to keeping talent inside, Guillermo Carmona, director of the Cuban Industries team, told Reuters.

“Without a doubt,[that deal]was a huge incentive for[our players],” Carmona said. “Now, we have a lot left.”

(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; image editing by Eve Watling; text editing by Dave Sherwood and Diane Kraft; planning by Eve Watling)

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