When the 2022 World Cup qualification campaign kicks off this week, Cuba will take an approach it hasn’t tried in years: bringing in many of its best-qualified players.
For years only Cuban players who had contracts with INDER, the country’s governing body for sport, were selected to represent the national team. That will change this month. Cuba has asked several players based abroad – and outside the Cuban official sports system – to compete in a number of World Cup qualifiers.
That means potential national team debuts for Norwich City wing Onel Hernández, Spain-based defender Carlos Vázquez Fernández and San Marino-based striker Joel Apezteguía. For defender Jorge Luis Corrales, this also means a return to the national team after six years.
“I didn’t know whether to scream or laugh because there are a lot of conflicting emotions,” said Corrales, who currently plays in a US second division. “The images of many years with the national team and all the great moments went through my head. I think attending these moments will again be one of the best experiences I’ve had since arriving in the US. “
To external observers, the overseas players fall into a category that is difficult to distinguish from Cubans who have deviated from national teams at tournaments abroad or have defected elsewhere. But there is one important distinction that makes all the difference for Cuban officials: everyone either left the island with their parents as children or received government permission to go abroad.
Corrales, for example, got to visit his father in Miami after the 2015 Gold Cup, a major regional championship, and decided to stay after being granted a five-year visa. Since then he has played for several teams in Major League Soccer and the USL Championship, the second division in the USA, including for his current employer, FC Tulsa.
Apezteguía is hoping to make his national team debut at the age of 37. He played in Cuba until he was 24 before leaving to help his father run a bar and restaurant in Spain. After years of working in the smaller European leagues (Moldova, Albania and his current home in San Marino are highlights) and hoping to get noticed by Cuban football officials, the call finally came.
Hernández, 28, left Cuba as a child to move to Germany. He began his professional career in the German second division before moving to Norwich City, where he contributed to promotion to the Premier League in 2019. That summer he became the first Cuban to play in the Premier League. A few months later, in a game against Manchester United, he became the first Cuban to score.
Hernández had expressed an interest in representing his country of birth in the past and even accepted an invitation to practice with the national team, but it still seemed impossible to qualify for an official game until this month.
Vázquez Fernández, a 21 year old named CaVaFe, traveled to Spain with his parents when he was 3 years old. There he developed his football game, rose through the academy of Atlético Madrid and temporarily trained with the first team. He has expressed his desire to wear the Cuba jersey for years but had no schedule in mind.
“I knew that first call would come,” he said. “Which I didn’t know if it would be sooner or later, 2028, 2025, 2021, but I knew it would happen. I’ve always been positive. “
What neither player is sure of, however, is why the calls are coming now.
Hernández was in regular contact with Cuba’s manager Pablo Elier Sánchez, including video chats, to find out about the team’s tactics. He and the other players said they felt Sánchez and a handful of other officials made their draft easier by working for several years to convince football and government officials to add them to the group.
Sánchez addressed the new faces in a brief airport interview when he arrived in Guatemala on Sunday and said they would “undoubtedly” strengthen his team.
“They are players who play in major leagues, top leagues in the world,” he said. “They will go a long way when it comes to the results the team can achieve.”
Cuba has not given an official explanation for its sudden openness to players outside the national sports system, or whether the success of these first steps could usher in an openness to a previously unthinkable perspective: the reinforcement of the Cuban sports teams with the defectors who represent the elite of the Cuban sports diaspora , not just soccer players like Osvaldo Alonso and Maikel Chang, but possibly baseball stars like José Abreu and Yuli Gurriel.
Notifications to Sánchez, Union officials and INDER were not returned.
The players hope that they can make a difference. Apezteguía said it had been difficult to watch the Cuban national team, who ranked 180th out of 210 FIFA members, and to know that he could raise the level of the game.
“It bothers you a little because you feel a little powerless,” he said. “You see it on TV without being able to help or represent your country, fight and give your all in the field. Now that this opportunity is here, we need to reflect on the present and this opportunity that we have been given. “
Cuba will play both of their first qualifying matches in Guatemala, playing against the hosts on Wednesday and four days later against Curaçao, the favorites to advance to the next round. However, those games could lay the foundation for a bigger Cuban goal: qualifying for an expanded 48-team World Cup in North America in 2026.
Even without a concrete answer to the timing of the decision, Cuba’s reinforcements are optimistic. This will be a first step in realizing the nation’s potential, especially as Cuban-based players are increasingly allowed to go abroad to try their luck in the best leagues in the world.
“We have so many children in Cuba who love football and they want to live the dream I’ve lived,” said Hernández.