Nebraskans, Cuba in Soccer Diplomacy

By Michelle Ray Ortiz
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 1999; 12:57 a.m. EDT

HAVANA (AP) -- They are young men who have only known Cuba as a communist country, who were born more than 20 years after Fidel Castro came to power.

Young men who grew up in middle America, some having never seen an ocean or ridden on an airplane. They are U.S. teens sporting the latest style in haircuts and sideburns -- many of whom got most of their knowledge about this island nation from a recent issue of National Geographic.

The 21 members of Nebraska's top under-17 soccer team are just the sort of diplomats some believe are needed to open people-to-people relations between the United States and Cuba.

The idea behind the weeklong visit, which will feature four Nebraska-Cuba games, ``was to open the door to the generation that is not dealing with politics, to replace Cold War antagonism with athletic rivalry,'' said Pam Falk, a New York-based Cuba expert who is advising the team.

The Gold Nemesis team from Lincoln, Neb., a four-time state champion, was chosen for its skill as well as the fact that it comes from a region without ties to Cuba.

Trip organizers wanted ``a team that hadn't seen the world and wasn't jaded about politics,'' Falk said.

Team members say they have been pleasantly surprised by Cuba, where they have been met with friendly shouts and waves from onlookers curious about the squad of mostly fair-skinned blondes.

The reaction to the team's arrival Sunday on Varadero Beach ``was like Moses parting the Red Sea,'' coach Collin Mangrum said. ``It was a very unusual experience to have everyone wondering, `Who are these people? Why are they here?'''

The team quickly found themselves in a pick-up game of soccer alongside clear Caribbean waters.

Although language proved to be a communication barrier, ``people would come by and point and say `my friend, your friend,'' 17-year-old Chris Frey said. Previously, he'd had no opinion of Cuba.

``I read about it in the National Geographic. We knew it was communist but I didn't have any inkling about it,'' he said.

Many players were impressed by Cuba's famous architectural charm and its natural beauty. They've also noted its poverty, seen in the crowded, dilapidated apartment houses of Havana.

Still, Frey said, ``it's a lot better than what I pictured. ... They have more freedoms than you'd think when you think of communism.''

The Cuban players, who likewise have grown up under the 37-year-old U.S. blockade of Cuba, said there was no room for governmental problems on the soccer field.

``We want to show the people of the United States that politics has nothing to do with us. We are thankful for this,'' said soccer player Sandro Seuillano, 17.

The American team's arrival coincided with a three-day trip to Cuba by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. Both visits can be seen as ``steps toward greater closeness'' between the two nations, said Luis Hernandez, president of the Cuban Soccer Association.

``This visit by the Nebraskan team to our country is going to enable these ties of friendship between the people of the United States and Cuba to improve,'' he said Monday while watching the first game on Monday.

Both sides expressed hope the Nebraska visit will open the way for more amateur sports exchanges.

``One thing's for sure, hopefully through (our trip) people are going to know that people from Cuba are not stereotypical, real hard-nosed, mean people,'' Gold Nemesis co-captain Christian Mangrum said. ``They're actually really nice, really genuine.''

His father, the coach, said his players feel honored to be part of the move to strengthen U.S.-Cuba friendships.

``We represent a lot of what I think America is about -- farmland, heartland, traditional Americans,'' he said. ``We're happy to represent those values.''

Mary Hulbert, the Gold Nemesis team administer and mother of one player, said the trip has strengthened her hope that relations will improve and dissipated her worries about traveling to a communist country.

``I'm not a political person (but) I was thinking one night, you know, we do trade with Vietnam,'' she said. ``Now we have Cuba just right next door and it would mean so much to the economy down here to let trade come in.

``I personally think, after seeing it, I wish we would all just shake hands and feel better about each other.''

Soon after, Hulbert cheered with other Nebraska parents as their sons wrapped up their match Monday in a 2-2 tie -- shaking hands with their Cuban rivals and telling them ``good game.''

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press