By Barry Janoff
June 2, 2015: The ever-widening FIFA scandal may be tearing some huge holes in the fabric of global soccer, but thanks to President Barack Obama, the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League are helping to strengthen the sport as well as relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
The Cosmos are in Cuba to play a friendly against Cuba's National Team, which will air live in the U.S. this evening (June 2) via One World Sports, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and ESPN Deportes Radio (5 PM ET). (Editor's note: The Cosmos defeated Cuba, 4-1.)
The event is a direct result of President Obama’s decision in December to move toward restoring full diplomacy between the U.S. and Cuba, a political and armed threat dating back to the Cold War. In April, the U.S. dropped Cuba from its blacklist as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The match is the first time a U.S. professional sports team will play in Cuba since 1998 when MLB's Baltimore Orioles played the Cuba National baseball team in an exhibition game in Havana. The match also marks the first visit by a U.S. pro soccer club to play in Cuba since the Chicago Sting (of the first incarnation of the NASL) in 1978,
“The best way to start any relationship is with a match and (this) match will be significant and historical,” said Bill Petersen, commissioner of the NASL.
But the game between the Cosmos and Cuba's team is not just about soccer.
In February, Netflix said that its streaming video service would be available in Cuba, although there are restrictions on how people living in the nation can obtain the service.
Earlier this year, American Express and MasterCard said that Americans would have their international credit cards accepted in Cuba, although, again, there are restrictions regarding how people living in Cuba can apply for and then use the cards.
In April, San Francisco-based Airbnb, which sublets homes and apartments in locations worldwide to tourists and visitors, began to operate in Cuba.
"Our vision is to create a world where you can belong anywhere — no matter who you are or how far you’ve traveled," Airbnb said n a statement. "For the first time in decades, authorized U.S. travelers will have the chance to experience authentic Cuban hospitality at homes across the island."
According to Airbnb, "Because we’re building on the rich Cuban tradition of home sharing, we’re uniquely positioned to help Cubans reap the rewards of economic growth while preserving their unique culture. When Airbnb guests stay in local neighborhoods, they bring business to surrounding entrepreneurs—whether they be hosts, artists, or even ice cream shop owners."
Hollywood and music stars have traveled to Cuba on a regular basis, among them most recently Sean Penn, Danny Glove and Jim Belushi. In 2013, Jay-Z and Beyoncé went to the island to celebrate their fifth anniversary.
On Christmas Eve last year, the musical “Rent” opened in Havana for a three-month run, the first American musical to do so since U.S. enacted its embargo in 1960.
Last year, Papa, a Hollywood biography of Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Cuba from 1939-1960, was filmed in Cuba.
Cuban Chrome, a reality series from Discovery Channel looking for vintage American cars is filming there.
In January, 25 American triathletes competed in the Habana Camtri Triathlon events in Havana.
In April, Steve Nash and Dikembe Mutumbo conducted a four-day NBA training camp in Havana.
According to MLB, there were 74 players from Cuba MLB or MiLB rosters on opening day, up from 63 in 2014 and 29 in 2008. Most notable among them: Yasiel Puig (Los Angeles Dodgers), Jose Abreu (Chicago White Sox), Rusney Castillo (Boston Red Sox) and Yasmany Tomas (Arizona Diamondbacks). In March, the Red Sox signed 20-year-old Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada to a $31.5 million deal, and he currently plays for the Single-A Greenville (SC) Drive.
"This will be an important step forward in growing the popularity of the global game in Cuba and in improving relations between two nations."
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees conducted spring training in Cuba. This year, new commissioner Rob Manfred said that MLB was exploring the possibility of playing exhibition games in Cuba.
The Cosmos game tonight in Havana's 28,000-seat Pedro Marrero Stadium will get updates on SportsCenter.
"It makes me happy that once again football is helping with peace, between United States and Cuba," soccer icon Pelé, who is in Cuba with the Cosmos, said during a media conference there on Monday. "We see unhappily that there are a lot of political problems everywhere. But football brings people together. For me it's a big responsibility."
According to Cosmos head coach Giovanni Sarvarese, "Everyone is excited to be (playing) in Cuba. It is historical. It will be a good [opportunity] for us to unite the people in a common goal: soccer."
Petersen is thinking long-term for the NASL. "Everything can be on the table and we'll take it one step a time and manage the relationship carefully," Peterson said. “[We will be] exploring players in NASL, coaching, sharing among coaches between Cuba and our league, player development, officiating. Everything could be on the table and we will take it one step at a time.”
"We are extremely privileged and honored to accept this opportunity," Seamus O'Brien, chairman for the Cosmos, said during a press conference in March to unveil the game, "This will be an important step forward in growing the popularity of the global game in Cuba and in improving relations between two nations and two cities. I for one have always believed in the power of sport to bring people together and to bring down barriers. We hope we can inspire others."