NY Cosmos and Cuba set June 2 for soccer friendly in Havana
NEW YORK (AP) The coaches of the New York Cosmos and Cuba's national soccer teams jointly announced Monday they will play a June 2 match in Havana.
The announcement comes amid talks by Washington and Havana to work toward the restoration of diplomatic relations between the former Cold War foes. The Cuban and Cosmos teams conducted their own negotiations in January, during a CONCACAF Under-20 tournament in Jamaica.
''Everything happened very quickly,'' Cosmos president Seamus O'Brien said of the match, which both sides call an act of sports diplomacy. ''Everything was done in a couple of weeks.''
The Cosmos will be the first professional U.S. soccer club to play on the island in 37 years. The now-defunct professional Chicago Sting played in Cuba in 1978, while the amateur U.S. national team played a World Cup qualifier there in 2008.
''When I was told that there was a chance of facing the Cosmos, I quickly said `yes,' because I was aware of this club, their history, their prestige,'' Walter Benitez, the Cuban team coach said in a press conference. ''Now I realize that this is bigger than I figured.''
The Cosmos compete in the second-tier North American Soccer League. The team's roster includes Raul Gonzalez, a longtime star with Spain's national team and club powerhouse Real Madrid. Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, at the sunset of their careers, played with the team during its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.
The announcement follows the Dec. 17 announcement by both governments that they would negotiate the restoration of relations severed after the 1959 Cuban revolution.
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat who is a critic of the American trade embargo against Cuba, praised the match. He said was in Havana when presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced they would work toward restored relations.
''There were two things that all the Cubans said that they loved about the United States: One was sports and the other was every damn thing else,'' Rangel said.
At the press conference, a video was shown of the 1971 trip by U.S. ping pong players to China that was credited in helping revive diplomatic ties between those countries.
Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese said the team ''historically has been a soccer ambassador,'' adding that Cuba will be the 42nd country it has visited.
For the Cuban team, the match will also be a tuneup for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and the CONCACAF Gold Cup held in the U.S. in July.
Sports exchanges between Cuba and the United States have increased in recent years, including several visits by U.S. college baseball players.
Baseball is Cuba's most popular sport, but soccer has made strides in recent years with many young people sporting jerseys of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
''You can watch a lot of soccer in Cuba, breathe a lot of soccer. This could help us find more talent,'' Benitez said.