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Soccer beginning to gain foothold in Cuba

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HAVANA — Aerial photographs of soccer fields in Cuba were once enough to sound the alarm.

“Cubans play baseball,” warned a CIA consultant in 1970 after studying U.S. satellite images. “Russians play soccer.”

That was then on the island, soccer is now. Parks, empty lots and alleyways that were once home to baseball in and around Havana have been taken over by pickup or organized soccer games. Baseball aficionados say the shift began a decade ago and could have a major effect on a nation that has seen its top baseball talent defect — often under perilous conditions — to sign lucrative contracts with Major League Baseball teams.

“I’d been told it was happening, but until you see it with your own eyes, you can’t believe it,” says Milton Jamail, the author of Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball, who has been to the island 10 times, most recently in January. “You always hear that baseball is Cuba’s game. But it is clearly not the only sport that has captured the attention of young men on the island.”

Reasons for this sports shift might sound familiar to U.S. fans:

•Baseball moves too slowly, especially on television.

•Soccer only requires a ball, while baseball equipment can be too expensive.

•Baseball in Cuba is often viewed as the sport of the older generation.

Perhaps as a sign of the times, Team Cuba failed to get out of pool play in the World Baseball Classic. Netherlands eliminated Cuba 14-1 on March 15.

Despite such struggles, they have been playing baseball in Cuba for almost as long as it’s been in the USA. In 1864, Nemesio Guillo returned to his homeland with a bat and baseball…

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