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  • Saturday, June 3, 2000

    Soccer still has not caught on in Havana

     HAVANA (AP) -- Baseball has long reigned as the king of sports in Cuba, leaving soccer all but ignored on an island where little boys learn to bat a ball before they are old enough for school and elderly men spend days arguing the merits of teams and players.

     Cubans, who are sports fanatics at heart, passionately follow soccer's World Cup games every four years, as well as sports of all types during the Summer Olympics. Some Latin American soccer superstars, such as Ronaldo of Brazil, or Gabriel Batistuta of Argentina, have strong followings here.

     But when it comes to their own national soccer team, Cubans just don't seem interested - not even in the World Cup qualifying matches.

     There wasn't a single word in Cuba's national newspapers on Saturday about the Cuban soccer team's last chance to qualify when it plays Canada here tomorrow (8 p.m. EDT, CTV Sportsnet, tape delay).

     Cuba's National Sports Institute has worked to change the lack of interest in soccer, promoting the national team in recent years and even gaining some financial support from FIFA, soccer's international governing body.

     Still, the players say they haven't the kind of experience needed to build a strong team. And the rough field at the Pedro Marrero Stadium in Havana where Cuba plays hasn't helped.

     "The pitch is absolutely disgraceful," Costa Taka, general secretary of the Cayman Islands Football Association said after his team lost to Cuba 4-0 in the first round of qualifying back in March. He complained that the field had "undulations all over the place, bumpy and in my opinion dangerous."

     Canada hopes the pitch won't be a problem as it begins its World Cup qualifying campaign riding a 13-game unbeaten streak. Pat Onstad will start in goal for the Canadians, who play Cuba in Winnipeg in the second leg next Sunday.



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