World Cup fever has hit Havana, like most capitals around the world. Private businesses closed, people missing from work, animated chats everywhere, and dozens of children playing in the parks, are obvious signs of how this sport has become a favorite in the country.
The low quality of Cuban soccer, the lack of Cuban players in foreign leagues, and its 80-year absence from the World Cup are no obstacle. Thousands of fans are following Russia 2018 with unbridled passion.
DIARO DE CUBA visited the terrace of the 1830 restaurant at the mouth of the Almendares River, one of the places where fans gather daily to watch the games.
The group Habana Show set up a giant screen there this week for the South Korea-Germany game, the latter being one of the teams with the most fans on the Island.
The atmosphere, with flags and uniforms, raised the question of why many Cubans today prefer soccer, when the national sport is baseball.
"What we like most about football is its aesthetics. It is a beautiful sport and it draws people in. There is a lot of color, and it has deep roots, so people really love the teams, and that ties you to it, " explained a young man excitedly.
"Soccer has flooded the hearts of all Cubans, and baseball is not the same as before," said a friend. "Young people identify more with soccer. I guess there are many factors. The quality of baseball declined a lot, and soccer has filled that gap."
"I was a baseball fan, but since I started watching Germany in 2002, in a game against Saudi Arabia, and they were so big, and so dominant on the field, I started to like the team, and soccer in general," related another fan, vice-president of Bayern Munich's fan club in the capital.
"I started to follow them and to feel a great love for this team, and for the league in its country. Soccer has a magic that draws you in," he added.
The vast majority of those gathered at the 1830 restaurant wore T-shirts of the German national team, waved flags, wore scarves and hats in the colors of that country, and blew into large horns.
But these types of items are not found at state stores.
"Every year that goes by it's easier for us Cubans to get soccer t-shirts, flags and banners. They import them from the United States or from other countries. There are even agencies that specialize in this, because of the strong market for this kind of merchandise," a fan clarified.
"They are already being special ordered, with the names of people's favorite players, at higher prices. But there are also cheap ones, for those who can't afford it. The prices range from 10 to 50 dollars, depending on the quality of the garment," he specified.
After the first half of the game we found an official from the German Embassy in Cuba in the crowd.
"There are many people who enjoy soccer and come here to watch the games. I'm very happy to see all these fans of the German team. I've never seen such passion for our team in other countries, so I'm very happy," he shared excitedly.
One of those on hand for the show, the state television figure Carlos Hernández Luján, host of the successful Bola Viva, expressed his concerns:
"Soccer, over time, has been gradually restructured and better organized, from every point of view, for fans in our country," he said.
"Look, it's not just initiatives. Here the fans have managed to have get t-shirts of their teams, and their favorite players. With baseball, however, which is our national sport, it is really hard to find a Cuban fan who has his team's t-shirt," he complained.
"I think that these are things that should be sold right at the stadiums, but the truth is that the problem is the Cuban sports industry, which has more important things to worry about than t-shirts," he added.
Cuban television has been identified by many baseball fans as one of the main culprits behind young people's preference for soccer, as it has broadcast hours of these games while neglecting, for years, the American Major Leagues, where the best baseball in the world is played.
"I don't think that you can blame Cuban television for this soccer phenomenon, because during a period when broadcasts of the Major Leagues, or the NBA games, or a whole group of professional sports, were very restricted, television had to fill in the gaps with soccer," explained Hernández Luján.
"It is relative. Something happened during a certain period in this country when there was no choice but to do that, and this preference was sown, due to the quality of the international league games, and the emotions that they generated, which permeated our young people, to such a degree that baseball has been supplanted," he said.
"People talk more about soccer than the National Series. The country practically stops when the playoffs come around, but other than that, there is very little talk about baseball, and the fans are not very interested in it, especially young people," he admitted.
"We have lost our country's sports heroes, because the level of our sports dropped. We still have international athletes, but those heroes we had in the past, like Mireya Luis, Sotomayor, Ana Fidelia Quirot, etc., we don't have them right now, and it is dangerous, for our national identity, that our sports heroes right now are foreigners," said Hernández Luján, his words tinged with sadness.
The game's outcome is history: the German team, lacking in ideas and exhibiting poor play, was eliminated by an embarrassing 2-0, to South Korea.
The party of Cuban fans rooting for Germany ended in sadness, as the crowds slowly abandoned the venue.