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A new era in sporting ties between the United States and Cuba gets under way here Tuesday when the New York Cosmos become the first professional American sports team to play in the Communist-ruled nation for 16 years. In pure sporting terms, the match between the Cosmos, who play in American soccer's fledgling second tier, and the inexperienced Cuban squad, ranked 109th in the world by FIFA, carries next to no value.
Sporting diplomacy as Cuba face Cosmos
06/02/2015
 
Habana, Cuba

A new era in sporting ties between the United States and Cuba gets under way here Tuesday when the New York Cosmos become the first professional American sports team to play in the Communist-ruled nation for 16 years.


In pure sporting terms, the match between the Cosmos, who play in American soccer's fledgling second tier, and the inexperienced Cuban squad, ranked 109th in the world by FIFA, carries next to no value.


But the wider significance of the occasion, which comes as the United States and Cuba seek to draw a line under a five-decade schism which dates back to the Cold War, is inescapable.


Both Cuban and American officials believe the match, which kicks off at 5:00 pm (2100 GMT), could represent the start of closer sporting relations between the two nations after more than 50 years of estrangement.


It is one of several clear signs of a thaw in sporting relations to emerge since President Barack Obama and Cuban counterpart Raul Castro announced their historic rapprochement last December.


Havana announced last month that the Baltimore Orioles baseball team -- the last professional US team to play in Cuba back in 1999 -- would return later this year to play against the Cuban national team.


Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese believes games like Tuesday's fixture at the ramshackle Pedro Marrero Stadium could become a regular occurrence in the future as relations between the two nations improve.


"It definitely feels that it could be the beginning of something," Savarese said on Monday. "More occasions like this can only help understanding and to unite people through sport."


The Cosmos traveled to Cuba with Brazilian legend Pele, who ended his glittering career with the club in their glamorous 1970s heyday during the ill-fated early years of the North American Soccer League.


Pele compared Tuesday's encounter to his famous 1969 trip to strife-torn Nigeria with Brazilian side Santos, which saw a three-day ceasefire declared to allow two planned exhibition matches to go ahead.


"It's an incredible moment ... it's peace time," the 74-year-old told a press conference on Monday, offering words of encouragement for football in Cuba, where baseball remains by far the most popular sport.


"A long time ago, the United States started to play football and then they qualified for the World Cup," the three-time World Cup winner said.


"I think Cuba could be the same. Very soon they will have a team in the World Cup, no doubt."


The NASL, which struggles for attention in the United States where Major League Soccer is the dominant league, meanwhile sees Tuesday's game as an opportunity to establish a foothold in Cuba and the Caribbean.


"For us as a league, it's probably most important that we're developing a new relationship," said NASL commissioner Bill Peterson.


"The Caribbean area is very important to our league -- we had 25 players from the Caribbean playing in our league last year and we look forward to the day when there's a player from Cuba in our league."

Source: Rob Woollard AFP
 
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