Cuba, CONCACAF, and the Future of Women’s Soccer

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Cuba exit World Cup Qualifying having scored zero goals and conceded 29. Their performance shows what’s wrong, and what’s right, about women’s soccer in CONCACAF.

Cuba entered this month’s CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying tournament well aware of the uphill battle they’d be facing. They are currently ranked 88th in the world, and have never been higher than 84th. They were placed in a group with Canada (ranked 5th), Costa Rica (34th), and Jamaica (64th), after managing to qualify for the final round by narrowly scraping past Bermuda in the Caribbean Zone qualifiers. But those numbers don’t even really tell the tale. The Jamaican team has taken a major step forward, bolstered by support from the Bob Marley Foundation and Alacran Foundation, and is quickly moving up the ranks—made clear by their defeat of Costa Rica to secure a place in the semifinals.

Cuba, meanwhile, hadn’t played in three years since the start of this year’s campaign, which means significant portion of their roster had never played a single international game before this year. Nor do they have a meaningful domestic league in which to hone their skills during these significant gaps. And given Cuba’s isolated status, it would be quite difficult for players to play internationally, even for those few with sufficient talent to potentially make the case.

Following his team’s 12-0 loss to Canada last week, Reniel Bonora Peñalver said that most of his players participate primarily in grassroots soccer programs, but have very little opportunity for development. Most teams in those leagues draw primarily from those in their late teens or early 20s, but without any further pathway forward, few players are willing to stick with the regimen. That leaves a very small and constantly rotating pool of available players. Given the need to constantly disassemble and reassemble, it’s virtually impossible to develop a coherent style or set of habits. It’s not surprise, then, that Cuba were severely outclassed when facing teams with even a modest chance to coordinate and develop.

For Bonora Peñalver, the lesson of that match was clear: “Canada is on another level.” He didn’t say this as a complaint, simply as an obvious statement of fact. But he was also optimistic about what his team and country. would take from the experience: “We need to change the structure of our preparation for these tournaments. We need more competition and matches in preparation, more opportunities to develop quality players.”

The question, as always, is whether the Cuban federation lives up to that goal. But they should. Not just because every federation should support their team, though of course they should. But also because this Cuba team brought incredible passion and energy to a tournament where they knew they were going to get blown out. Compare their matches to the ones from Group A, where the US ran roughshod over opposition that seemed utterly resigned to their fate, and the difference is night and day. Cuba was even more lost, but remained committed and energetic for every minute of the competition.

Even more, Cuba was notable for actually trying to play soccer. Despite the enormous gap in preparation and ability, Cuba never once tried to set the sort of deep block defense that is so common in these CONCACAF competitions. After an incredibly shaky first half against Costa Rica, when they looked a bit like a deer in the headlights, they played with style, attempting aggressive dribbles, and pushing forward quickly whenever they got the chance. It didn’t work very well, given the gulf in talent. But that’s what made it even more impressive. This was a team that came to play and came to learn, and which had no fear of looking silly in the process.

I asked Bonora Peñalver about this commitment to playing an open game, and his response was as honest as it was interesting. In effect he said that the gap was so large that nothing they did tactically had any real chance of succeeding. But packing it in deep and just trying to hold on wouldn’t do anything to help them improve. So it was better to focus on the sort of aggressive counterattacking style that will eventually constitute their best approach, once they’ve evened out the quality gap enough to have a realistic shot of winning games against decent teams. That was refreshing to hear, and matched very well with the performances I saw on the pitch.

This is a team that showed up to play. Even if the overall gap in quality made it impossible for them to seriously challenge their opposition, they didn’t shy away from the job. And there were glimpses here and there of what this team could be. Rachel Pelaez showed more quality on the ball than anyone else in the group outside of Canada, dancing around tackles like it was nothing. Her panache in possession was a joy to watch, even if there was never quite enough going on around her to make it stick. María Isabel Pérez exhibited a silky first touch, and a keen eye for openings in the defensive line. She rarely had teammates available on the other side of those throughballs, but they were impressive nonetheless.

To me, the defining moment of Cuba’s qualifying tournament was in the 89th minute of their final game. They were trailing 9-0, and had been outscored 29-0 over the course of the whole tournament. But their heads were still high, and as soon as they gained possession, they raced down the field looking for one final chance to put in a shot on goal. When the ball bounded loose in the corner, they chased it relentlessly. It was all to no avail, in the end, but that’s precisely the point. This is the spirit of a true competitor, and it deserves to be rewarded with more support. These players demonstrated the will, commitment, and desire to get better. They deserve the resources that will help make it happen.

Image courtesy of Leanne Keator